Posts Tagged ‘instructional coaches’

Should Instructional Coaching be Confidential?

Friday, May 17th, 2013


This is an excerpt from my book, Unmistakable Impact: A Partnership Approach for Dramatically Improving Instruction.

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.

Fidelity and Instructional Coaches

Friday, May 3rd, 2013

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?

What YouTube Taught Me About Learning

Thursday, April 11th, 2013

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 Power of Clear Explanations

Friday, March 15th, 2013

I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity. Oliver Wendell Holmes

 If you haven’t seen it, I suggest you watch Joe Smith’s four and a half-minute explanation of how to use a paper towel.  His simple explanation changed my life.

What makes Mr. Smith’s explanation so effective?

There are at least four strategies Mr. Smith uses to make sure we know exactly what he is describing. If we apply his strategies to our own explanations, I’m convinced we can be much clearer as teachers, instructional coaches, or presenters.

Why: How to use a paper towel is not that sexy of a topic, but in just a few words, Joe gets our attention and explains why we should care about what he’s describing.  One paper towel per person per day would save 571,230,000 pounds of paper in a year.  Wow.  Even if I’m not that concerned about the environment, I would find it hard to resist those numbers. If nothing else, Joe has captured my attention at the start.

Simple:  Smith doesn’t give us a lot of extra information.  In fact, his talk is built around two words:  shake and fold.  By telling us only what we have to know, he makes it extra easy for us to learn and remember what he is explaining.

Modeled:  Mr. Smith shows us several times how to do this. He even sets up a little sink on the stage so that we can see exactly what to do.  Some of the viewers the TED website give him grief for using too many paper towels during his explanation, but I think he does exactly what needs to be done.  He makes sure we get it by overdoing it.  Too often modeling is cut too short and people are left a little confused. Joe leaves no doubt in our mind how to do what he’s describing.

And, for the record, I’ve already saved dozens of pieces of paper thanks to his explanation, so I’ve made back the few he used up modeling.

Memorable.  Smith helps us remember his explanation in simple ways: getting the crowd shouting out “shake and fold,” displaying a sense of humor, connecting the twelve shakes to twelve to the twelve apostles, twelve zodiac signs and so forth.  After less than five minutes, he makes it almost impossible for us to forget what he has to say.

These are simple strategies, but they are powerful. If we (a) explain why, (b) keep our explanations simple, (c) model, model, model, and (d) make our talk memorable, more people, (children and adults), will remember what we say. Our explanations might just change people’s lives.

Joe Smith changed mine.

What is the Value of a Coach?

Monday, March 11th, 2013

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:

 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 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.

My Day As A Substitute Teacher

Friday, March 1st, 2013

Yesterday I volunteered to be a substitute teacher in a local private school.  After a snowstorm grounded me at home, and a seventh-grade teacher had an unfortunate injury, I found myself in front of 25 energetic middle school students.

The day reminded and taught me a lot about how I teach and also prompted me to think about some ways schools can make it easier for substitute teachers.

Here are a few of my thoughts.

What Schools Can do to Set Up Substitute Teachers For Success

Go Out Of Your Way to Support Your Substitute Teacher For Success.  A few minutes after I got to my classroom, the school principal visited me, welcomed me to the school, and took the time to just chat about the students I’d be seeing.  She had a million fires to put out—the school was in real need of more substitutes—but she took the time to put me at ease.

That little gesture was worth a lot. She made me feel good about being in the school, welcome, and I started the day a little more at ease.

Then, throughout the day, even though I was in a portable away from the school, other teachers sought me out to provide support. One teacher made sure I found the staff lounge. One teacher had a nice conversation with me over lunch about teaching English.

One teacher offered to teach math for me on his planning time when I told him I wasn’t great at math. I told him I’d be OK and he should use the little planning time he had, yet still, he kindly made a point of dropping by just to make sure I was fine.

Each of these actions were simple little acts, but each one made me feel welcome, and as any substitute teacher can tell you, it can feel lonely in the classroom even though there all those squirming bodies in front of you.

Provide As Much Information As You Can.  This is probably a dream, and it would have been impossible in my case since I didn’t volunteer until after the school day yesterday, but I would have loved to have had an email the night before class that described what I would be teaching. Then, I could have done some planning ahead of time.  Better plans = better teaching, and the more I know, the better prepared I can be.

Provide Guidelines on Different Kinds of Learning Experiences.  Sixth period I monitored a students’ study hour.  I’m pretty sure that meant the students were supposed to do their homework, but many told me they didn’t have homework, and that left me a bit high and dry.  Students in middle school with nothing to do can be a problem waiting to happen.  I came up with a plan, but it would have helped to have had a description of what study hour is and what students need to be doing when they don’t have homework to do. As always, the more that can be done to help the sub know what to do, the easier subbing might be.

What I Learned About Being A Substitute Teacher

Relationships Are Essential.  Most of the time, my students kindly and respectfully did what I asked them to do.  Part of the reason, I think, is that I did my best to quickly build a relationship with them. I particularly paid attention to positive ratio of interaction, but one simple strategy seemed to work wonders.  I asked all the students to write their names on name tents, and I called on them by name, right from the start. When students heard their name, they sat up and smiled.

I worked hard to memorize their names, and when they quizzed me in the cafeteria and I knew, I could see it made them happy.  It’s a little thing, but using name tents might have been the best idea I had.  I actually think the students were more inclined to stay on task because of this little strategy.

Be Extremely Clear About How Students Give Each Other Feedback. In one class, the students gave little presentations.  I asked them to give each other “thunderous applause,” but for one student, the joker of the class, they offered up paltry applause, kind of joking back at him.  He was a resilient kid, but I could see he was a little crushed by his colleagues. I was disappointed with myself.

I should have been really clear on what applause looks like, modeled it, explained that everyone gets a lot of applause and why, and had the students practice it.  Like so much of teaching, I didn’t realize my mistake until it was too late, but I hope I’ll remember next time.

Compelling Content and Activities Are Crucial.  I could feel myself losing the class right in the first few minutes, and I knew I had to catch their attention, so I pulled out an old trick of mine, memory pegs, which are a lot of fun and also, I think, useful.  The kids enjoyed learning how to do something they didn’t think they could do, and they were a lot more engaged from that point on.  What I learned was that from now on I’ll always have a few highly engaging, simple activities up my sleeve just in case I need to get the kids’ attention, which I probably will have to do every time.

It’s Harder Than It Looks.  Policy makers who think teachers will be “motivated” by rewards for higher test scores should spend a couple days subbing.  Something like a small financial reward would be the last thing on the mind of a teacher standing in front of 25 (or 40) middle school students.  A more basic concern is survival.  Substitute teaching is a bit like riding a wild animal. You just do everything you can think of to stay on top. Teachers need better support, like instructional coaches and meaningful opportunities for collaboration, not old-time carrots and sticks forms of motivation.

All in all, my day was wonderful.  The school could not have been more supportive. And, as usually is the case in schools, the students were the best part. At the start of the day, hoping to set a positive tone, I asked the students to write down what they like most about learning.  One student wrote this:

 “Knowledge leads to wisdom; wisdom leads to understanding, and I love to understand things. I want to be wise and have some answers.”

Profound words for anyone, let alone a young teenager.  Don’t we all want what he or she wanted—to have some wisdom and some answers?  I hope I gained a bit of knowledge yesterday.  Many of you who read this column may have started as substitute teachers.  What helped you, or could have helped you, succeed? What did you learn?  We’d love to hear.


The Most Important Part of Instructional Coaching? Setting a Goal

Friday, February 22nd, 2013

For most of my career, I’ve been studying teacher growth. I’ve found, as I’m 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’ve 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 just to 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 can’t 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 of the teacher, which often helps the coaching relationship.

3. The teacher has to care about the goal a lot. If the teacher doesn’t 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 students. Watch 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 isn’t 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.

Steve Jobs, Radical Learner: Saying No To 1,000 Things

Wednesday, January 9th, 2013

A “no” uttered from deepest conviction is better and greater than a “yes” merely uttered to please, or what is worse, to avoid trouble. Mahatma Gandhi

According to Carmine Gallo, author of The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs, how Jobs acted when he returned to Apple after 11 years “tells you everything you need to know about how Steve Jobs creates innovative products.” When he returned, Apple had more than 350 products. Within a year, Jobs reduced the product offerings to 10. Jobs initiated the rebirth of Apple by saying no to hundreds of things.

Gallo explains why saying no is essential. “It’s only by saying no, that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.” In fact, as William Ury writes in his excellent book The Power of a Positive No,

Everything you care about—your happiness and the well-being of your family, your success in your job, and the health of the larger community—hinges on your ability to say no when it counts.

And many of us, I suspect—teachers, principals, instructional coaches, radical learners—need to be saying no more often.

A teacher, for example, can say no to the seductive power of content, and write unit questions that emphasize the most important knowledge, skills, and big ideas students need to master.

Click here to watch a short video of high school English teacher Wendy Hopf talking about the importance of focus.

Click here to download a free checklist for writing guiding questions.

A principal saying no to “innovation overload,” can lead a school toward a simple school improvement target that everyone understands, agrees with, and commits to implementing.

Click here to download a Learning Forward 2012 presentation I gave with Jadi Miller from Lincoln, Nebraska School district, describing Elliot Elementary School’s success doing just that.

Instructional coaches can say no by refusing to try and know everything for everyone and instead focusing attention on a small number of high-impact instruction strategies that have the most potential to increase student learning and well-being.

When he talked about his accomplishments, Steve Jobs said, “I’m as proud of what we don’t do as I am of what we do.” All of us can take the same approach. In fact, I believe that it is only by saying no to many things, that we can begin to effectively do those few high-impact things that can have the most impact on student learning and well-being.

What do you think?

Do you struggle to say no to demands that pull you away for achieving your best?

When should educators say no more often?

Finding Common Ground

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

I wrote this column a few years back on another site–but it seems especially relevant today.  Let’s seek out what we hold in common:

The act of finding common ground, I’ve decided, is a bit like trying to create a venn diagram.  I’m one circle. You’re another circle, and the challenge is to find out where we overlap.

I’ve spend the last week traveling back and forth across Arkansas, meeting with instructional coaches all over the state.  I’ve driven, I figure over 700 miles,  seen a lot of the state, and met many wonderful people. Travel like this, it turns out, is a great opportunity to try out finding common ground. I want to share two experiences I’ve had this week as I’ve tried to create venn diagrams for myself and others.

Experience #1. I stayed over night in a wonderful bed and breakfast the Edwardian Inn in Helena. Over breakfast, before I headed to the workshop site, kind of sleepy and lost in my coffee, eggs, and internet, I suddenly remembered our common ground challenge. I decided to search for some common ground with the host of the inn, and I asked him about the BB King poster he had posted in a corner of the hotel.  That simple question led to a lively conversation about the musical history of Helena.  It turns out that the town has an incredible history. The famous King Biscuit Flower Hour radio show had its start in Helena. The awesome Levon Helm, from the The Band, grew up in Helena.  And the “crossroads”made famous by Robert Johnson were only about 30 miles from Helena in Clarksdale, Mississippi.  These are just some of the things I heard. There were other stories about Conway Twitty and Bessie Smith, and the Helena Blues Festival.  I loved the conversation, and I now have a much deeper appreciation of Helena, and I feel I got to know a really nice fellow.  If you go to the Edwardian Inn, be sure to say hi for me.

Experience # 2. Driving from Little Rock to Fort Smith, I stopped at a gas station off the road.  The two people running the station seemed to be just putting in time. I noticed, however, that they had accents that sounded a bit like they were from India, and it turned out I was right. I shared that I had just been there, and we had a great, lively conversation about the food, the scent, the traffic, and the sense of harmony I felt was central to the Indian way of life.  In a flash, it felt like we were friends. I felt a real connection with them, and we all had fun.  Finding common ground was joyous; it brought me closer to two nice people, and when we found that common ground we were all happier and more energized.

I really believe this is our natural state–happy, connected, and enjoying each other’s company. Our communication challenge is all about getting us back to that state, finding our common ground.

Personal Best

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

“We strive for the excellence the Greeks called arête …–to function as you are supposed to function, to achieve your personal best.” George Sheehan

In Personal Best, the great philosopher-runner (or running philosopher) George Sheehan elaborates on one of his core beliefs: Our struggle to achieve personal bests helps us know and actually create who we are. We all have felt the “joys of indolence,” Sheehan reminds us, but the true measure of a person is how he competes with himself. The heroic human journey, he says, is “to function as you are supposed to function, to achieve your personal best … not to excel against others, but to excel against yourself.”

Sheehan writes about running, and for him, running is much more than a way to lose a few pounds; it is a way to achieve a happier, more authentic, fully realized life. Talking about why he runs, Sheehan writes as follows:

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.

Sheehan’s idea that meaning and happiness can be found in striving to achieve our personal best extends far beyond running. In fact, I believe it is an even more powerful concept when applied to professional pursuits. Sheehan himself describes how the same striving for excellence that he sees at the heart of a dedicated writer is manifested in the creative life of a famous writer:

“I am writing the best I can,” said the author of some bestselling popular novels. If I could writer any better I would. This is the peak of my powers.” It matters little that she cannot write any better. It matters, more than life, that she is doing it with all her might.

How does Sheehan’s heroic notion of the quest for excellence apply to teaching? I believe it matters “more than life,” to borrow Sheehan’s phrase, that we see teaching as exactly the same kind of opportunity for excellence, that every day in the classroom we embrace the challenge to achieve a personal best. It matters greatly that our quest for excellence is our quest to create an opportunity for our students to experience as much growth, joy, empowerment, and learning as possible.

Like a race, the classroom provides a clear standard by which we can measure our growth. Runners like Sheehan compete with themselves to see if they can run faster, longer, or with more ease or joy. As teachers, we can compete with ourselves to see if we can have even greater positive impact on all of our students.

To pursue a personal best in the classroom requires several things.

First, we need to have a clear understanding of how well our students are learning or not learning. Thus, formative assessment becomes an essential tool for anyone striving for a personal best because, like a runner’s stop watch, it tells us how close we are to our ideal.

Second, we need to have access to new ideas, instructional coaches, collaborative colleagues, and other resources and supports so that we can make adjustments when we fall short of our ideal. The real joy of teaching is learning how to reach all the students we teach.

Finally, we need the courage to see the classroom reality exactly as it is and have the perseverance to continue striving for excellence. And since inevitably some days won’t go as well as we had hoped, if we really want to achieve personal bests, we need to accept that there will be times when we feel uncomfortable.

To learn, to see the classroom exactly as it is, we need to venture outside our comfort zone. If we don’t take risks, we are in danger of being satisfied with what William James, one of Sheehan’s favorite authors, describes as “lives inferior to ourselves.” Sheehan sums this all up as follows: “It’s more comfortable not to try. But life is, or should be, a struggle: Comfort should make us uncomfortable; contentment should make us discontented.”

The rewards of challenging ourselves, of pushing ourselves for a personal best, are enormous. When we pursue excellence, we gain a deeper understanding of our purpose, a fuller knowledge of the contribution we make, and the satisfaction that comes from doing work that makes us proud. Most important, of course, if we strive to be the teachers we were meant to be, we will make a bigger difference in the lives of children. By our example, we can even encourage our students to start their own journey — to strive for their own personal bests.