Today on gallup.com, results of a survey conducted by Shane Lopez and Preety Sidhu show that new teachers are amongst the most engaged employees when they start their careers, with 35.1% of new teachers reporting they are engaged by their work. I’m not sure that 35.1% engagement is cause for celebration. The data still show that many teachers are not engaged. Additionally, the data reveal that although teachers start out with the highest level of engagement, 35.1%, engagement dramatically drops to 27.9% for teachers with 3 – 5 years experience. After a few years, most teachers report that they are not engaged.
Why is that? What is it that is leading to such low levels of engagement? The data again are informative. Lopez and Sidhu’s survey results also show that teachers are the least likely of all occupations to say, “at work my opinions seem to count.” Think about that. Teachers are less likely to think their opinion counts than service workers, repair workers, bus drivers, construction workers, or in fact, any category of employee.
And do you think teachers are on verge of getting more voice in their professional learning? My worry is they are not. With the roll out of common core, which often involves a small team developing a curriculum and then imposing it on the rest of the staff, there is a danger that teachers will have even less voice (even though your child’s teacher already thinks her opinion counts less than does the barista who sold you a coffee today).
What would it mean if teachers were more engaged? What if, instead of 27.9% engagement, teachers were 80% engaged? What would it mean for our children and for this country?
We can give teachers a voice in what they do and we should. Maybe we should spend less time telling our teachers what to do and more time listening to what they think. After all, our teachers, the people who spend every day with our kids, know a lot about students. Certainly, it is worth taking a hard look at our schools and asking, can we do a better job of giving teachers an authentic voice in their own learning?
Given the opportunity to speak at the Learning Forward Summer Conference, I asked myself, what would be the message I would consider most important to share with a large audience of educational leaders? I decided that I should make my case that autonomy and accountability are both an important part of professional learning.
In my opinion, professional development that “holds teachers accountable” but doesn’t respect teachers as professionals and recognize their need for autonomy will not succeed. At the same time, professional development that honors teacher professionalism and autonomy but is not accountable will not succeed. Effective professional development requires autonomy and accountability. To understand what this means, we need to answer two simple questions.
What is Autonomy?
For more than a decade, I’ve been trying to answer this question. For me, when we respect teacher autonomy, we see teachers as full partners in their learning. I’ve written about partnership principles that describe what such a partnership might look like.
You can download a research article about the partnership approach here
You can read more about the partnership principles and how they apply to presenting here
Voice: If leaders and professional developers are going to honor teachers as professionals, then that begins with the simple notion that educators should have a say in what they do. Professional development that ignores the voices of teachers is dehumanizing. However, when we seek out the truth and encourage others to speak, we engage in mutually humanizing professional learning. Mr. Rogers is a great example of a person who truly wants other people to speak up and share their voice.
When professional development ignores teachers’ voices, it treats them like cogs in a machine, not people with knowledge, minds, and hearts. Also, when leaders do not encourage teachers to speak up, they cut themselves off from the very people who spend most of their time with students, who in most cases know the most about students.
Equality: The principle of equality is foundational to democracy, perhaps most clearly articulated in Martin Luther King’s magnificent I Have a Dream Speech, when he said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.
Equality is about more than equal access and equity, though these are certainly important. Equality is about seeing others as of equal value to ourselves, seeing that others count as much as we do, and not seeing ourselves as better than others.
This is critical for leading change. Edgar Schein in Helping: How to Offer, Give and Receive Help, argues that people are always judging whether or not they get the status they deserve, and when they don’t, people resist help. Schein writes:
All human relationships are about status positioning and what sociologists call “situational proprieties.” It is human to want to be granted the status and position that we feel we deserve, no matter how high or low it might be, and we want to do what is situationally appropriate. We are either trying to get ahead or stay even, and we measure all interactions by how much we have lost or gained.
During interactions, Schein explains, leaders can take on the role of being a parent and put other adults in the role of being a child, or they can see interactions as an adult to adult conversation. If leaders see themselves as parents, to the professionals in their school or system, they usually engender resistance.
Choice: If I see teachers as equals, then I don’t make choices for them. But choice is a nuanced principle for many reasons.
Second, choice does not mean that there are no non-negotiables. In any organization dedicated to public service, there are going to be some things that have to happen. The challenge is to respect teacher autonomy and clarify non-negotiables.
Third, as Barry Schwartz and Sheena Iyengar have explained, too many choices is no better than no choice. Sheena Iyengar gave a famous Ted Talk where she explains her research on the topic:
Reflection: Choice is essential for reflection, of course because if I just have to do what I’m told, I don’t get to do much thinking. Reflection is largely about thinking about how I will do something. Thomas Davenport in his book Thinking For a Living provides a second important reason for encouraging reflection. Davenport used surveys and interviews to study knowledge workers, people like teachers, who think for a living. He found that the defining characteristic of knowledge workers is a need for autonomy. Knowledge workers are paid to reflect, and when someone else does the thinking for them, knowledge workers resist. Davenport writes
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 take offense when someone else rides roughshod over their intellectual territory.
Dialogue: Dialogue is the natural mode of discourse for partners. During dialogue, I want to hear what you have to say, I want to engage in a mutually humanizing conversation in which we use words to think together.
For me, accountability means only conducting professional learning that makes meaningful, significant improvements. When educators are accountable, their professional learning has an unmistakable impact on student learning. In this way, educators are accountable to the process and especially accountable to children, parents, other stakeholders, and the profession of teaching. Furthermore, at the individual or school level, accountability is a genuine commitment to learning and growth on the part of every educator, a recognition that to have learning students, we need learning teachers, coaches, and administrators who are also learning.
Robert Fritz has explained in The Path of Least Resistance about growth coming from a creative tension between a clear picture of current reality and a goal. Peter Senge nicely summarized Fritz’s ideas in his seminal book, The Fifth Discipline
The juxtaposition of vision (what we want) and a clear picture of current reality (where we are relative to what we want) generates what we call creative tension: a force to bring them together, caused by the natural tendency of tension to seek resolution. The essence of personal mastery is learning how to generate and sustain creative tension in our lives.
Current Reality: Getting a clear picture of reality is not that easy. We misunderstand our personal reality because of habituation, confirmation bias, our inherent desire to feel competent, and other reasons. (One study, for example, found that 93% of US drivers judge themselves above average). For these reasons, real change begins with getting a clear picture of reality. This can be done in many ways.
Video recording your class: Learning Forward members can read an article about video and professional learning here
Looking at student work: Rigorously analyzing student work can also provide a clear picture of reality.
Setting a Goal: Effective goals are objective (that is you’ll be certain you have hit the goal when you hit it), measurable, and based on student learning (e.g. results on formative assessments), behavior (e.g. number of disruptions), or attitude (number of students who write about reading in their journals). A good book summarizing the power of goals is Heath & Heath’s Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard
Instructional Coaching: One way to combine autonomy and accountability is through instructional coaching.
You can read a column about goal setting and instructional coaching here
You can download a study of the impact of instructional coaching here
You can download an article describing what instructional coaches do here
Creating An Impact School: Another way to combine autonomy and accountability is to create an impact school.
You can download a presentation on the creating an impact school from Learning Forward 2012 here:
To sum up, teachers want to make a difference, and when their autonomy is respected and they are given the tools to make a difference, they will. Teachers like Michael Covarrubias recognize that they are the ones that can ultimately have a profound impact on students:
You can see my full conversation with Michael on The Teaching Channel
This is an early version of a section from my forthcoming book coming out at the end of this year.
Using a video camera to learn about your teaching is like looking into a mirror.
–Beth Sanders, Teacher, Birmingham, Alabama
Perhaps the most important reason why video is so useful for professional learning is it helps us see exactly what it looks like when we teach or our students learn. This is important because professionals often do not have a clear picture of what it looks like when they do their work. In our research conversations, teachers and coaches tell us that when they see video recordings of their lessons, they are often amazed at what they see. Often, teachers are pleased to see evidence that their lessons are working. In other cases, teachers are disappointed (and every coach told us that teachers tend to be extremely hard on themselves) by what they see. Often teachers are both pleased and disappointed. Kimberly Nguyen, a teacher in Michigan, watched two different classes she was teaching: her most and least engaged. Kim was surprised to see that she was a different teacher in each room. During our interview, Kim said
What I really noticed was that with the engaged group I am much more animated and I interact more. With the second group I really struggle with my mood and my response time is lower. In that class I think I am really boring.
People, we have learned, often have the same experience as Kimberly: they do not know what it looks like when they teach until they see the video. And, because they are unaware of what it looks like when they teach, educators often do not feel the need to change. They might be open to trying new practices, but they don’t feel compelled to change.
James Prochaska’s research into the personal experience of change provides us with some language for describing and understanding why people are so surprised by what they see in video recordings. Prochaska conducted more than 55 clinical studies of change with more than 1,000 people and concluded that the first stage of change is what he refers to as “precontemplation.” Change begins with people “pre” “contemplating” change, that is, at the start people aren’t even thinking they want to change. Prochaska writes, “G.K. Chesterton might have been describing precontemplators when he said, ‘It isn’t that they can’t see the solution. It is that they can’t see the problem.’” (p.40)
Our work with teachers, coaches, and principals has led us to similar conclusions. When we show videos of lessons to teachers, their response is often that they had no idea that the class looked the way it looked on video. Beth Sanders, a teacher in Alabama, said that watching video puts you inside the situation of your class:
It is much different being in the situation versus being outside the situation looking in. It is really important to me that I am kind of getting the full circle view of my classroom and seeing these are things that matter and these are things that could be better, and things that I can do to hopefully make things better by watching my class.
Watching yourself on video feels similar to the unsettling experience of hearing a recording of your voice for the first time—to the power of ten. There are many reasons why people are precontemplative, why they have so little awareness of what it looks like when they do the work that they do. Three main reasons are the complexity of teaching, habituation, and confirmation bias.
The Complexity of Teaching. Anyone who spends a short period of time in a classroom, will quickly realize one big reason why teachers sometimes have an incomplete understanding of everything that occurs in their classroom: teachers have too much to think about while teaching to also be able to step back and oversee everything happening in their class. In one introduction to teaching, the authors write that “teachers make somewhere between 800 and 1,500 decisions every day” (Kauchak & Eggen in Introduction to Teaching: Becoming a Professional, 2005, Chap. 2, p. 55). Teachers must think about delivering material, monitoring student learning and behavior, setting up activities, maintaining engagement, all while keeping an eye on the clock, and so for most of us, it is extremely difficult to step back and take in everything that is happening in the class while teaching.
Habituation. A second reason why many professionals struggle to get a clear picture of reality is a phenomenon psychologists refer to as habituation, the fact that we lose our sensitivity to just about anything we experience repeatedly. Through habituation we can become desensitized to any experience, pleasant or unpleasant, beautiful or ugly. This means that what at one time would have been impossible not to see can eventually become practically invisible.
When habituation happens to us in the classroom, it can have dire consequences. First, educators can forget about the true joy of this work, how important and beautiful it is to teach, to empower students to read and write, to become numerate, to help them transcend their social status, to mentor them to be the first in their family to go to college. Second, teachers can stop seeing children when they aren’t learning. They can stop noticing students who are bored, wasting time, or hating school. They can come to believe that off-task behavior and poor performance are all that can be expected from students. Teachers can also getting a much better understanding of how they treat students, becoming more aware, for example, of the positive ways they encourage students or the negative ways they let emotions interfere with fluent corrections.
Confirmation Bias. Another reason why we may not get a clear picture of reality in the classroom is confirmation bias. In DecisiveHeath and Heath describe that confirmation bias is our natural tendency to seek data that supports our assumptions:
Our normal habit in life is to develop a quick belief about a situation and then seek out information that bolsters our belief… Researchers have found this result again and again. When people have the opportunity to collect information from the world, they are more likely to select information that supports their preexisting attitudes, beliefs, and actions (Heath & Heath, 2013, p.11).
This tendency to seek out support for our beliefs can keep us from getting a clear picture of reality. Thus, for example, we might take correct answers of four students as evidence that all students are learning, or we might take a students’ failure to learn as evidence that the student lacks motivation rather than a prompt to change teaching.
Our tendency to seek out data that confirms our biases is further increased by the anxiety we feel when we realize students are learning and we don’t know what to do. We might be especially inclined to find proof that we are not at fault if students aren’t learning and we don’t know what to do to turn their learning around. The power of video is that it cuts through habituation, confirmation bias and the complexity of teaching to show a real picture of what is happening.
In instructional coaching the practice of coaching occurs within confidential relationships. There are at least three reasons for this.
First, when coaches deal with what matters to teachers, they are privileged to see and hear information most others will not see and hear. To share that private information with others is a violation of a person’s privacy. Second, coaching is much more productive when collaborating teachers are open about their ideas, thoughts, and fears. For many teachers, knowing that instructional coaching conversations are confidential makes it easier for them to talk about what really matters. Third, when we ensure that instructional coaching is confidential, we increase the chances that teachers will choose to work with a coach.
However, not everything a coach does, can or should be confidential. For example, instructional coaches need to keep principals informed of whom they are working with and what they are working on. Instructional coaches working with the Kansas Coaching Project discriminate between what should and should not be shared by saying that coaches do not share data or evaluative information. We communicate clearly to teachers that instructional coaching is nonjudgmental. Coaches are partners helping teachers learn new practices, not evaluators. Indeed, in most cases instructional coaches have no administrative training on how to evaluate teachers, so it would not be appropriate for them to evaluate teachers anyway.
In some schools confidentiality is not an issue. In especially positive, safe settings, teachers may be more than comfortable having their coach share any information. Indeed, Michael Fullan (2008) identifies transparency as one of his six secrets of change, stating that “when transparency is consistently evident, it creates an aura of ‘positive pressure’ – pressure that is experienced as fair and reasonable, pressure that is actionable in that it points to solutions, and pressure that ultimately is inescapable” (p. 14).
To create settings where such transparency is possible may require baby steps. In a culture where there is not a great deal of trust, confidential instructional coaching can be the default mode, but over time, if teachers agree, more information can be shared. The greater the lack of trust initially, the more important confidentiality usually is. What is most important is that principals and coaches clearly delineate what they will and will not discuss, communicate that policy across the school, act consistently with the policy. Perceived betrayal of trust can severely damage an instructional coaching relationship. For example, when a teacher says something to a coach that she think will be kept privately by the coach, and then discovers that what she said was shared with others, it may be impossible for the coach to ever win back the teacher’s trust.
This is a column from a few years back for another blog:
One of the most frequent comments I hear when I talk with people about school change is that instructional coaches will only be effective if they ensure that teachers implement new practices with fidelity. This is an easily justified goal. If teachers don’t teach innovations with fidelity, the thinking is, they won’t get results. So we need to make sure teachers do it (whatever it might be) the way it is supposed to be done. I think, however, that it is worth while to ask, “what is fidelity” before we totally adopt this way of thinking.
There are some thorny issues that we need to think about with respect to the topic of fidelity. Of course, if instructional coaching is going to be effective, coaches need to partner with teachers to provide the supports that empower teachers to implement new practices in a way that gets results. But we make a big mistake, I think, if we assume this means that teachers must mindlessly follow a script.
Lucy West, who is an author in a book I edited, Coaching: Approaches and Practices, suggests that instructional coaches, rather than encouraging fidelity, which she describes a “dictum to follow a script,” should strive for mindful engagement of the curriculum with teachers.
I agree completely for a number of reasons, but I’ll mention two here. First, asking teachers to implement exactly what a script says, exactly as the script says, treats teachers like workers on an assembly line rather than professionals. This means, I suspect, that an overemphasis on fidelity likely leads to low quality instruction where teachers do every task on a checklist but do not teach with passion, or love, or even in a manner that involves reflection.
The second issue, though, is more troubling. I just don’t think it is likely that a heavy emphasis on fidelity is practically effective. As Thomas Davenport has shown in Thinking For a Living when professionals (whom he calls knowledge workers) such as teachers are not given the opportunity to reflect and think for themselves, they resist change. Simply put: what knowledge workers do is think for a living; if someone else (researchers, administrators, policy makers) does the thinking for teachers, teachers will resist.
Now I’m not saying everything is up for grabs, or that a teacher can say, “OK, this year, no more reading and writing, this year it is all hockey.” That is ridiculous. I’m also not saying instructional coaches shouldn’t worry about high quality implementation, or understanding the teaching practices they share. In fact, I believe just the opposite.
Instructional coaches need to deeply understand the materials they share, and they should be highly skilled at finding precise and easy-to-understand explanations for those practices. However, when they explain, model, observe, and explore data, instructional coaches need to present that information in a way that allows teachers to do the thinking. For example, when explaining teaching practices, instructional coaches can say, “Here’s what the research says. However, do we need to adapt this at all so it will work for you and your students? What do you think about this approach?” 95% of the time, when instructional coaches ask for teachers’ opinions, the teachers say, “let’s do it the way you describe it.” When coaches tell teachers what to do without honoring their thoughts and voices, however, the first thought if not word for the teachers is, “I want to change it.”
There are several key lessons here.
First, instructional coaches have to deeply understand the teaching practices they share.
Second, instructional coaches have to find precise language to describe in easy-to-understand language how a new teaching practice will look in a teacher’s classroom.
Third, rather than telling teachers how to do it (encouraging mindless fidelity) instructioncal coaches should engage teachers in reflective conversations about how they think teaching practices might work in their classrooms (mindful engagement).
By treating teachers like professionals–by letting them do at least some of the thinking–instructional coaches have a much better chance of enabling high-quality teaching and better student learning–and isn’t that the whole point?
This is a guest post by Dennis Sparks, Emeritus Executive Director of the National Staff Development Council, now known as Learning Forward. Dennis’ blog, ”Dennis Sparks on Leading and Learning,” can be found at dennissparks.wordpress.com.
“Radical learners” may sometimes feel like outsiders even when they hold important positions withing their schools. Debra Meyerson uses the term “tempered radicals” to describe such individuals, and it is also the name of a book she wrote based on studies she has done on TRs, as she calls them.
Drawing on Meyerson’s Tempered Radicals and a 2005 interview I did with her for the JSD, I offer a set of attributes about “everyday leadership” so that “radical learners” can be even more effective in using their unique talents and perspectives to serve students and their school communities.
Who are “tempered radicals”?
“‘Tempered Radicals,’” Meyerson writes in her book, “are people who want to succeed in their organizations yet want to live by their values or identities, even if they are somehow at odds with the dominant culture of their organizations. … Tempered radicals are likely to think ‘out of the box’ because they are not fully in the box. As ‘outsiders within,’ they have both a critical and creative edge. They speak new ‘truths.’”
Meyerson also sees TRs as “everyday leaders” who are “… quiet catalysts who push back against prevailing norms, create learning, and lay the ground work for slow but ongoing organizational and social change.”
Here are five attributes of tempered radicals who are effective “everyday leaders”:
They speak their truths, even when afraid: “[M]ost conflicts,” Meyerson wrote in Tempered Radicals, “are not created by tempered radicals; but tempered radicals are often the ones who speak ‘truths’ and raise issues that have been suppressed. … Such acts of deviation …,” she writes, “require self-knowledge and conviction to overcome enormous pressure to conform and to suppress beliefs that challenge the majority.”
They have strong support networks: “Allies remind you that your struggles are not yours alone,” Meyerson wrote in her book. “Having people with whom you can compare your experience helps you identify larger patterns outside yourself that need to change. . . . The biggest advantage of working in concert with others is that collectives have greater legitimacy, power, and resources than individuals.”
They have a bias toward action, especially “small deviant actions”: “Sometimes [TRs] inspire change simply by behaving differently, and their small deviant actions challenge norms and set an example that others emulate . . .,” Meyerson wrote in Tempered Radicals. “Often tempered radicals lead change more deliberately by initiating small wins that result in new relationships, understandings, and patterns of behavior.”
They have clarity about and a laser-like focus on their most important goals: “Effective agents of change at the grass-roots level know who they are and what they are trying to accomplish,” Meyerson told me in our JSD interview. “Effective tempered radicals hold on to their deepest goals, which enables them to push through their fears and to choose their battles effectively.”
They promote, through their example and advocacy, experimentation and deep professional conversations: “Tempered radicalism is sustained through the daily interactions that occur within a supportive context …,” Meyerson told me in the JSD interview. “That’s done when teachers experiment, have some success, and have deep conversations with one another about the things that are working. … Experiments become the stimulus for conversation and the vehicle for professional learning.”
A final thought…
Tempered is an apt adjective to describe the radical learners who are drawn to this blog because of the inspiration and guidance it provides.
The attributes I described above are intended to provide yet another thread in this tapestry of ideas and practices to enable radical learners to better serve their school communities through countless acts of everyday leadership.
This week I’m giving a post-dinner talk in Niagara Falls, Canada. I’m never too sure about how such a thing can be done, but as I prepared the presentation, I asked myself, what would I want after teaching all day, driving to a conference, and having a nice dinner? Aside from a short talk, I thought, I suppose I wouldn’t mind watching some videos and talking with my friends.
So that is what I decided to do. The presentation summarizes six ideas about learning, both personal and professional, illustrated by some of my favorite video clips and quotations. I’ve included the clips, ideas, and quotations here.
1. Learning that dehumanizes carries the seeds of its own failure.
This clip, for me, captures a simple idea, that life should be fun, joyous, playful and human. Margaret Wheatley says it beautifully:
There is a simpler way to organize human endeavor. It requires being in the world without fear. Being in the world with play and creativity. Seeking after what’s possible. Being willing to learn and be surprised.
The learning we experience and the learning we provide should celebrate that humanity.
2. Learning involves partnership.
This conversation, for me, illustrates that no matter how different our level of expertise or status, we can still engage in respectful, partnership conversations.
When we do learning to each other, using what Paulo Freire refers to as banking education, we decrease humanity. An alternative is to learn with people in partnership, that is, to design learning that recognizes each adult or child’s need for autonomy. Peter Block, whose work really introduced me to the idea of partnership, writes about it this way:
Partners each have a right to say no. Saying no is the fundamental way we have of differentiating ourselves. To take away my right to say no is to claim sovereignty over me. For me to believe that I cannot say no is to yield sovereignty.
3. Learning occurs in a culture.
Learning in any system — a classroom, a school, a school system — occurs in a culture. Therefore, one of the true challenges for a leader (a teacher, principal, superintendent, whomever) is to shape culture. Edgar Schein, who literally wrote the book on organizational culture and leadership, puts it this way:
The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture. If you do not manage culture, it manages you, and you may not even be aware of the extent to which this is happening.
4. Coaching accelerates learning.
For more than a decade we’ve been learning how coaching can help people improve practice. When coaches help teachers set goals, work as partners with colleagues, demonstrate what Michael Fullan refers to as impressive empathy, they provide a very important service for their colleagues. Atul Gawande’s New Yorker article is the best writing I’ve seen describing the challenges and potential of coaching.
5. Learning involves striving for personal bests, striving to do things we couldn’t do before.
What I notice about this clip is how profoundly empowering it is for Cooper in this clip to do something he couldn’t do before. There are at least two ways to understand learning. One way is to assume that people need to be motivated by leaders, and therefore learning requires extrinsic rewards and punishments if people are going to move them forward.
An alternative is to assume that people actually want to do good work; people need to be trying to improve, to be striving for personal bests, to feel they are living a fulfilling life. One of my favorite authors, George Sheehan, puts it this way:
My end is not simple happiness. My need, drive, and desire is to achieve my full and complete self. If I do what I have come to do, if I create the life I was made for, then happiness will follow.
6. Learning involves moral purpose.
One thing, I believe, that characterizes Mr. Rogers is that he clearly did what he did because he cared about other people more than himself. For professionals, for educators, focusing on something bigger than ourselves is very important. Michael Fullan, who’s written several books about moral purpose and moral imperative, put it this way:
Moral purpose, defined as making a difference in the lives of students, is a critical motivator for addressing the sustained task of complex reform. Passion and higher order purpose are required because the effort needed is gargantuan and must be morally worth doing.
I love all these quotations and clips, and like so many things, I see them through my perspectives. I hope you see them from your perspectives, and that you benefit from watching them too. I’d love to know what other clips and quotations you think truly illustrate key ideas about professional and student learning.
What clips and quotations inspire, encourage, and educate you?
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 shared 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 shared 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, ratios 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 and teachers do not share a common vocabulary about the meaning and importance of observations, admin 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.
Getting a clear picture of reality is an essential part of professional growth. When teachers look at video of their lessons or review their students’ work, they can identify professional learning goals and plans that can have a real, positive impact on students’ learning experiences. And clearly understanding current reality, as Robert Fritz and Peter Senge have explained, is a critical part of the creative tension that stands at the heart of growth. Senge writes:
The juxtaposition of vision (what we want) and a clear picture of current reality (where we are relative to what we want) generates what we call “creative tension:” a force to bring them together, caused by the natural tendency of tension to seek resolution. The essence of personal mastery is learning how to generate and sustain creative tension in our lives.
Teacher observation, therefore, should be a good thing — a way to set up the creative tension Senge describes. Unfortunately this is not always the case. When teacher observations are used solely to show what teachers have done wrong and point out their deficiencies, observations can actually make things much worse, rather than better.
I saw this first-hand in a large US school district where I was invited to lead a workshop on effective teaching. I was asked to present to an entire faculty in a middle school that was at the heart of a high-poverty urban community.
Before I gave my presentation, an important person from the central office stopped in to address the group. “I have looked at the scores for your school,” he said. “They’re not bad scores. Do you know what they are? They are shameful scores. You should be ashamed of these scores. We’re not going to fire you,” he said. “There are worse things than firing.”
And then, I suppose, to ensure that the group would listen to my presentation, he said, “Now here is Jim Knight to tell you what you need to do.”
That was my introduction.
How enthusiastic do you think the teachers were about embracing the ideas in my presentation? The truth is they were so overcome with emotion, they probably didn’t hear much of anything I said. But what they did hear, they hated. Yes, they might implement the practices to comply and keep their jobs, but they didn’t implement the practices out of love. They did so out of fear and shame, and no doubt their students felt that same fear and shame in their classrooms when their teachers did what they felt they had to do.
There are at least two ways of looking at teacher observations. One way is to try and motivate teachers, as this administrator tried to do, by shaming people to act. In The Icarus Deception, Seth Godin explains how shame can be a soul killer, and destroy the creative imagination at the heart of any artist:
When those in power use shame to bully the weak into compliance, they are stealing from us. They tell us that they will expose our secrets (not good enough, not hardworking enough, not from the right family, made a huge mistake once) and will use the truth to exile us from our tribe.
This shame, the shame that lives within each of us, is used as a threat. And when those in power use it, they take away part of our humanity.
An alternative to shaming teachers is to start with the assumption that most people actually do want to do what is best and learn. No doubt, teachers who have experienced years of soul-crushing evaluations and compulsory, top-down professional learning will struggle to trust others when those others start to treat them as partners in their own development. But, my experience has shown, when teachers are authentically respected, they embrace real learning opportunities.
If teachers are offered meaningful choices, if their knowledge and expertise are acknowledged, if teachers have a voice in what they do, and if they are partners in developing their professional learning, they will blow you away with what they can do. (I have written about a partnership approach to professional learning in Unmistakable Impact.)
Shame might get teachers to comply, but shame doesn’t inspire teachers to passionately and imaginatively strive to do their best for students.
This, then, is the question: What kind of teachers do we want for our children? Do we want teachers who use every ounce of their creative imagination to reach their students, or do we want teachers who are shamed into complying with decisions they had no part in?
We know what we want. How we use teacher observation data and teacher evaluation has a huge impact on what we get.
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 Leading in a Culture of Change:
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 don’t buy the line that teachers don’t 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 7th-graders are on-task and learning, it can be difficult to pause and deeply reflect on what is actually going on the classroom.
A coach can gather data a teacher would like to gather if they weren’t 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 Lucas sums up what we all know to be true when he writes about the teachers who taught him:
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 instructional coaches.
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.