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Creating a Successful Instructional Coaching Program

Wednesday, May 21st, 2014

One of the most powerful ways to get better at anything is to work with a coach. I’ve frequently quoted Atul Gawande, who has written that, “Coaching done well may be the most effective intervention designed for human performance.” Please note carefully what Dr. Gawande says: coaching “done well” has great potential. Coaching done poorly, however, might not make a lick of difference. Indeed, poor coaching could make things worse not better.

Since coaching done well is so important, my colleagues and I at the Kansas Coaching Project at the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning have conducted research to identify (a) the knowledge and skills effective instructional coaches must have to be successful and (b) the support and coaching instructional coaches need so they can acquire the right knowledge and skills. Each is described below.

What Coaches Need to Know and Do
We have identified five essential domains (knowledge and skills) that need to be in place for instructional coaches to succeed. When any of the five domains is missing, a coach’s chances for success are significantly diminished.

1. Teaching Practices. Instructional coaches share proven practices with teachers to help teachers meet student-focused goals. For example, Lea Molzcan, an instructional coach I described in High-Impact Instruction (2013), collaborated with a teacher to help her learn how to teach clear behavioral expectations to reduce non-instructional time (e.g. students settling down to learn at the start of class, passing out papers, engaging in small conversations before working, transitioning between activities, getting ready to leave class before the end of the lesson and so forth). Non-instructional time in the teacher’s classroom went from an average of 10 minutes to 2 minutes each day. Over 172 days 8 minutes added up to the equivalent of 5 weeks more instruction.
To be effective, instructional coaches who help teachers meet goals will need a deep knowledge of a small, comprehensive set of high-leverage teaching practices they can use to help teachers succeed. I describe such an instructional framework in my book High-Impact Instruction .

2. Coaching Process. For the past six years, we have used design research to intensively study and refine the way coaches work with teachers. We have found that coaches must know how to guide teachers to (a) identify student-focused goals, (b) identify high-impact teaching practices that will enable teachers to hit the goals, (c) ensure teachers understand those practices by describing them (often using checklists) and modeling them so teachers can see them in practice, and (d) help teachers make adjustments and monitor progress toward those goals until the goals are met. The most recent description of this research is included in Focus On Teaching.

3. Working with Adults. Coaches can know a lot about teaching, but if they don’t know how to work with adults, they may struggle to succeed. Our research suggests coaches need to understand how complex it is for one adult to help another, and we have studied and validated a partnership approach coaches can take with adults which positions teachers as equal partners in all coaching conversations. My most comprehensive description of the complexities of helping and the partnership approach is included in Unmistakable Impact.

4. Communication Skills. Coaching is relational, and coaches need to know how to build relationships that make it possible for them to speak the truth so it will be heard by collaborating teachers. In particular, coaches need to be good listeners, ask good questions, build emotional connections, find common ground, build trust, and redirect destructive interactions. These skills are described in Instructional Coaching and Unmistakable Impact.

5. Leadership Skills. We have found that the coaches who lead change successfully must have two attributes. First, they must be deeply respectful and responsive to the teachers with whom they collaborate, adjusting their approach depending on the personality and needs of each teacher and his/her students. Second, they must be assertive, leading change in an organized, ambitious forceful manner. These skills are described in Instructional Coaching.

Support for Coaching Coaches
I’ve created a Coaching Coaches toolkit, and you will be able to download it on our website early next week. If you want more, you can read about my workshop on coaching coaches here. Next one is August 7 & 8.

How we spend our days

Sunday, August 25th, 2013

How we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives—Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

I am so grateful to every educator who is returning to school these days to do the good work of helping students learn to read and write, to love learning, to dream, to learn how to achieve dreams. And I know the kind of commitment that goes into that good work. To change the future one day at a time, one child at a time requires tremendous energy and commitment. As I’ve written in other columns, to teach is to do the same noble work of so many other great people committed to a brighter future.

So it may seem strange to some that I write today to suggest that each of you be cautious as you commit your life to your work. The work is so important and beautiful, truly. But the work cannot be your life.

For several years now I have been deeply committed to the same goal that many of you are committed to: every child receives excellent instruction, every day in every class. And I am still committed to that goal. But what I have realized these past few weeks is that as passionately as I hold to that goal, I cannot let that goal dominate my life. My life, that is my wife, my children, family and friends, is my life. My work, as important as it might be, can never be more important than them.

A while back I wrote a friend a letter about addiction, and I wrote that I’m sure alcohol in moderation is fine, but when you drink so much that drunkeness becomes your reality, and reality seems unreal, then you know you need to stop. I didn’t realize it at the time, but now I know that work had become my addiction. Work was more real than my real life. Fortunately, my eyes have opened, and my family and friends are back at the heart of my life where they belong.

I know I am not the only person who has been addicted to work, and I’m not here to judge others especially since I know exactly how they feel. But I can say this. Putting the people that matter most to me at the center of my life is probably the best thing I have ever done.

Our students need committed, passionate educators. But our families need us too. We need to keep them at the heart of our lives. In truth, chances are we never will achieve our goals if we try to do them on our own anyway.

Everything Is Amazing and We Still Don’t Change: What Louis CK Can Teach Us About Personal Growth

Monday, February 4th, 2013

In his best-known comedy bit, Louis CK takes all of us to task for failing to see how incredible it is to live in this time. As he says, “everything is amazing and nobody is happy:”

http://barefootmeg.multiply.com/video/item/56

He is right of course. Everything is amazing. We fly through the sky. We have a tiny machine that can direct us to anywhere we want to drive. We download music, videos, and books in seconds. We find the answers to all our questions on the internet. We visit with people live on camera from any where in the world. How can we forget that everything is amazing? The reason is simple. Over time we almost always get used to whatever we experience. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as habituation.

Habituation occurs when our response to any experience or stimulus decreases over time. Simply put, no matter how beautiful or disgusting a stimulus might be, we can get used to it if we experience it a lot, and we may not even notice what at one time would have been impossible not to see.

Habituation can desensitize us to something beautiful. For example, one of my best friends lives in Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada, my pick for most beautiful place in the world. A few years back I told him how awestruck I am by the mountains he sees everyday. “The truth is I’ve lived here so long,” he said, “that there are many days when I don’t even notice them.”

Habituation can also desensitize us to very unpleasant stimulus. For example, when I have traveled through towns built by pulp mills that fill the sky with disgusting sulfurous smoke, the locals always tell me, “You know, I hardly ever notice it.” Good or bad, the truth is, we usually get used to it.

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.

Finally, people can get used to their our own counter-productive behavior. They can get used to treating students as objects who simply need to comply rather than complex human beings who deserve to be respected. They can let their own need for control trump their students’ need to learn and grow.

Habituation, however, is not permanent, and it can be broken in many ways. Teachers can video record their classes and watch the video to gain insight into their teaching and students. They can work with a coach to get another professional’s perspective. They can visit a colleague’s class to see how another teacher promotes learning. Or they can learn turn to their students and ask them for feedback on how they are experiencing the class.

Over time, people can get habituated to just about any experience or they can teach themselves to see reality for what it is. In schools, it is clear which path is best for students.

15 Tips for Radical Travelers

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

For the past few months, I’ve experienced the mixed blessing of constant travel. Mixed because although I love the chance to partner with truly amazing people, to get to those people, I also have to suffer the unavoidable frustrations of air travel. Over the past seven days, for example, I’ve missed three connecting flights through Atlanta, and twice had to fly out on a different day than the one I’d planned.

Right now, in fact, I am writing this column from Atlanta airport, where I am waiting for a 10:30 flight instead of getting off my 7:30 scheduled flight to Austin.

So, sitting here in Atlanta, with a few extra hours, I thought I would share some strategies I’ve learned to use over the months and years I’ve been flying. These are tips I’ve gathered either by asking pilots and flight attendants for their suggestions, or the old fashioned way, through experience. Here, then, in no particular order, are my suggestions for my fellow radical travelers as you venture out into the airports around the world.

1. Take a photo with your cell phone of your car’s parking space at your home airport so you never forget where you parked it. When you arrive home from you flight five hours late, you won’t want to take an extra thirty minutes searching for your car. If you snap a photo, you’ll always know where it is.

2. Always carry on your luggage. Checked luggage can get lost, but more importantly, checked luggage can keep you from getting on an alternate flight. When you try to reschedule your trip, you will be asked, “Did you check luggage?” If your answer is yes, you won’t get the earlier flight home. Checked luggage also gets you on to the plane or out of the airport much quicker since you don’t need to check or get your bags.

3. Never take the last flight or the last connecting flight. Flight attendants tell me they are told to always do this. Taking the second-to-last flight dramatically increases your chances of getting where you want to go.

4. Always allow yourself more than an hour for connecting flights. Another tip from flight attendants, and another way of making sure you actually get to where you want to go.

5. Bring something to do in case you have to wait. I always bring a book, a notebook for ideas (analog and digital) and other items I need to keep me busy. If I have 100 emails I need to write, or a great book to read (I’m amazed by Jhumpa Lahari right now) it makes the wait much better.

6. Bring extra socks and undies. You usually won’t need them. But they don’t take up much space, and if they’re there when you want them, you’ll be very happy.

7. Use ziplock bags for liquids. You can toss the bags when you get home, so that each trip you have a clean bag to hold shampoo, toothpaste and so on. I like to use the hotel’s plastic laundry bags for my own dirty laundry when I head home, too.

8. Avoid Atlanta and Chicago O’Hare airports. Just trust me on this one.

9. Try not to fly at the end of the month. For reasons I don’t fully understand, flight crews can run out of time at the end of the month, and so you are more likely to be delayed because of a missing crew at the end of the month than at any other time.

10. Find out if your credit card gets you access to the airline’s clubs and if it does, use it. Consider getting a card that gets you free access if you don’t have one. Also, keep in mind that for $45.00 you can get access to a club for one day. Most of the time, that’s not a good deal, but on a day when there are three or four hour waits to get to a customer service agent, you can probably get served in a club in 15 minutes if you pay the daily rate.

11. Plan your diet. You can probably get a list of the restaurants in your airport, even read the menu ahead of time. Most of the food in an airport will shorten your life and expand your waist. But if you plan ahead, you can find something that is fairly healthy. I also recommend you bring a couple meal replacement bars just in case you need them. Like your extra pair of socks, these bars are good to have when you need them.

12. Buy an adapter that converts one outlet into three. This little piece of magic ensures that you’ll never have to search for an unused outlet again. Whenever you find an outlet being used, you just ask the user if he or she minds sharing, then plug your computer and your fellow traveller’s into the outlet. You get access to power, and you might just make a new friend.

13. Consider getting noise canceling headphones. I don’t always wear them, but when I’m sitting near an especially loud, especially opinionated person, I especially enjoy slipping on my headphones and turning up someone like Gustavo Santaolalla. Please don’t, however, get a bluetooth headset so you can talk loudly as you walk through the airport.  Please just do that for me.

14. Get a frequent flyer card, and use it, especially to call for advice when you are significantly delayed. If you have a bad experience, call the customer service people, explain your situation, and ask them if they can help you out in any way. You might just get an upgrade to First Class, or points or money. I picked up $50.00 for my extra delay here in Atlanta, and it didn’t take more than a couple minutes to call.

15. Don’t take out your frustrations on gate staff, flight attendants, customer service people or other airline employees. Whatever you’re experiencing, it isn’t their fault. Also, losing your cool won’t help you get what you want. The people working for the airline, I might add, feel it when you lose it. One customer service person told me on the phone that she sometimes looks over and sees her colleagues in tears because of what people say. I hope I haven’t caused anyone to feel that way.

There are other tips, of course, and I’m sure those of you who read this can share your ideas. I’d like to write more, but it looks like my plane is going to board, so I’m turning this over to you. What are your tips? What have you learned about the experience of travel. We want to know, so please share you suggestions and experiences here.

Sliding Back is Moving Forward

Monday, December 13th, 2010

In his fascinating book, the Biographia Literaria, Samuel Taylor Coleridge compares the act of creation to the movement of a bug skimming across the water against the current on a stream.  To move forward, Coleridge explains, the insect pushes hard and propels itself forward. Then after jumping forward, the insect lets the current move it backwards for a while, before it pushes itself ahead on the stream again. This little process, moving forward and drifting back, continues as long as the bug skims across the water.

Here is how Colderidge describes it:

Most of my readers will have observed a small water-insect on the surface of rivulets, which throws a cinque-spotted shadow fringed with prismatic colours on the sunny bottom of the brook; and will have noticed, how the little animal wins its way up against the stream, by alternate pulses of active and passive motion, now resisting the current, and now yielding to it in order to gather strength and a momentary fulcrum for a further propulsion. This is no unapt emblem of the mind’s self-experience in the act of thinking.

For Coleridge, creativity involves both the forceful, intentional push forward, followed by a passive drift backwards. Both are important. I’ve come to believe that this means that taking a break is just as important as pushing ahead and producing.

Over the holidays, I plan to take the great poet’s advice.  Starting today, I will take a short break and allow my brain to drift like the bug on the stream.  And like Coleridge’s bug, I intend to push forward again as soon as the holidays are over. The next Radical Learners post will be January 2.

I hope you have a wonderful holiday, and that you too get a chance to do some drifting too.  Our children need your best creative mind, and you deserve a break.

Fighting the Lizard Brain Part 4: Rituals

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

The Resistance’s goal is not to wound or disable.  Resistance aims to kill.  Its target is the epicenter of our being: our genius, our soul, the unique and priceless gift we were put on earth to give and that no one else has but us. Resistance means business.  When we fight it, we are in a war to the death.  Steven Pressfield

So far in this series on fighting the Resistance, I’ve suggested that we can fight what Seth Godin calls the Lizard Brain, the toxic force inside us that holds us back from achieving our calling, by (a) writing a personal vision–a clear statement describing who we are and what we want to accomplish–and (b) by establishing Big Hairy Audacious Goals, clear, important, easy to understand goals that are profoundly motivating, emotionally and intellectually. Vision motivates us to fight the resistance, and our goals provide what Heath and Heath describe in Switch as a destination post card, “a vivid picture from the near-term future that shows what could be possible.”

So if we know our destination and we are motivated, then doing the creative work we are called to do should be easy, right?  Of course not. Ask anyone who has tried to diet.  Ask a writer who has cleaned her entire home top to bottom rather than confront the blank page on her computer.  Ask a teacher who chooses to do the tried and true rather than stretch himself and try a new practice.

All of us, I suspect, have learned the hard way that a clear goal and real motivation are not enough.  We try but we fail, and Pressfield believes, we fail because of the Resistance.  It is the Resistance that stands between “the life we live, and the unlived life.”  A destination and motivation are essential, but more is necessary.

Practical advice on how to fight the Resistance comes to us from Loehr and Schwartz, who spent decades studying the habits of elite athletes. In their book, The Power of Full Engagement, the authors explain that we often fail to achieve our goals because we assume we can get to them just through will and discipline.  The truth is, such an approach rarely works.

Loehr and Schwartz explain that each of us only has a limited amount of willpower, just as our cars have a limited amount of fuel. What may happen if we rely exclusively on willpower to do some act, go the gym or write a new lesson plan, is  that times will come when our “willpower tank,” so to speak, has been drained before we get to the task.  Since we have spent our willpower, and there’s nothing in reserve, the creative act doesn’t get done.  The authors explain it this way:

The limitations of conscious will and discipline are rooted in the fact that every demand on our self-control – from deciding what we eat to managing frustration, from building an exercise regimen to persisting at a difficult task – all draw on the same small, easily depleted reservoir of energy.

Instead of relying on will and discipline, the authors suggest we create and follow routines and rituals; we do routines because they become habitual, and not because we rely willpower.  They write:

We use the word “ritual” purposefully to emphasize the notion of a carefully defined, highly structured behavior.  In contrast to will and discipline, which require pushing yourself to a particular behavior, a ritual pulls at you.  Think of something as simple as brushing your teeth.  It is not something that you ordinarily have to remind yourself to do.  Brushing your teeth is something to which you feel consistently drawn, compelled by its clear health value.  You do it largely on automatic pilot, without much conscious effort or intention.  The power of rituals is that they ensure that we use as little conscious energy as possible where it is not absolutely necessary, leaving us free to strategically focus the energy available to us in creative, enriching ways.

Loehr and Schwart point out that we all have rituals that we follow that require very little discipline, such as brushing our teeth. We don’t need will power to brush our teeth because it is simply something we do, almost without thinking.  It is a habit, but an important one if you think personal hygene is important.

We are better armed to combat The Resistance, then, if we create personal habits and routines that ensure we do what it is best for us to do.  We will be more likely to hit the gym if we make it a habit to always go there right after school on our way home.  And, we’ll be more inclined to do creative work in schools if we create similar rituals or experience.  Here are just a few:

Teachers can stay after school, or arrive early, to develop innovative lesson plans

Principals can set aside a specific period each day when they will visit teacher classrooms (even if they have to take their laptops to do email while visiting)

Coaches can set aside time each Friday afternoon to plan for the next week.

Teams of teachers could meet at a coffee shop or bar weekly or monthly to share ideas or just to take a break together.

Principals can set aside “sacred time” each day to do meet with teachers one-to-one or to observe classes.

Principals can commit to co-teaching once a week, or every other week.

Schools can establish routines that ensure teachers get to do lesson study or peer coaching.

There are many possible rituals.  These are just a few. The important thing is to get started, to identify a creative goal and then make it a ritual.  The more precise and specific your ritual, the more likely you’ll put the resistance in its place, and the more likely you’ll give voice to “the unique and priceless gift we were put on earth to give and that no one else has but us.”

Reading Students’ Minds

Tuesday, October 5th, 2010

If students aren’t engaged, they’re not learning, plain and simple, so knowing whether or not students are engaged, of course, is mighty important. There are many ways to scope out just how engaged our learners are.  How does the room feel? Is there energy in the air? How many students respond when a question is asked?  Are students making eye contact?  Are students dropping off?  Are students distracting themselves, or locked in to learning?

The trouble is, we can see what students look like they are doing, but we can’t read their minds. All good students have learned how to look attentive when they are completely disengaged, and plenty of creative students can look completely disengaged when they are they are actually deep in thought. Is my student who is looking up in the air thinking about a beautiful first line for a piece of writing, or is he thinking, “wouldn’t it be cool if Beyonce moved in next door?”  We can’t read their minds, so it is hard to know.

But can we ask students to tell us? Experience sampling, a method I used for my Partnership Learning research, is one way to do that.  All it requires is a simple form and the timer on your cell phone. If your phone doesn’t have a timer, you can buy a kitchen timer to accomplish the same thing.

The form, like the one I’ve included (You can download one here), is just a simple piece of paper with numbers arranged across the page in a typical likert scale.

You need to explain what engagement sampling is all about before you start using it.  You can explain what you’re doing by simply telling your students that you want to do a great job of teaching them, and so you are going to measure how well you’re doing.

Discussion of the form can be a springboard for a healthy dialogue with students about the importance of engagement in learning. You might ask students what engages them, or why engagement is important, or discuss how they can find personal connections in learning to make learning more relevant and thus engaging.

To make sure you get good data, you need to explain  what “I’m bored” means and what “I’m very engaged means.”  You also need to explain that students are to circle the appropriate number on the form whenever they hear the bell, circling a number on a different line each time.  Make sure they know their response is confidential and that for you to learn, they need to be totally honest.

Once everyone understands how to complete the form, grab your phone, set the timer on your phone for ten minutes, and start your lesson. When the bell on the timer rings, kids can circle the number that best reflects their level of engagement. I suggest you keep track of exactly what you are doing at each ring, so you can assess the level of engagement of each teaching practice. At the end of your class you’ll have some valuable data you can interpret.

I suggest you review your data the day you do the engagement sampling.  Just looking through your forms will tell you a lot.  Look for is trends, and try not to get too hung up on one or two students whose scores are outliers.  If you like data, you can calculate a mean and file away your data, then repeat the experiment a few weeks later. If you try out a new practice, you can also use the form to see how effectively it engages  students.

A big part of being a radical learner is to encourage our students by sharing our own enthusiasm for learning.  If we walk the talk, kids may get the learning bug too.  Engagement sampling can yield really interesting data, but it also shows that we are excited by learning and we want to do better.  When students see tangible evidence that we are learning, it can encourage them to embrace learning too.  Ultimately, inspiring students to be learners through this process may be a far more important outcome than what we learn from our data.