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Coaches, Don’t Try Too Hard!

May 4, 2011

I recently engaged a life coach to help me with a decision that I was struggling to make. We parted company after two sessions because her approach to coaching was not what I was looking for.

What was she doing wrong? She was trying to get out ahead of me in the process. Let me explain with a metaphor.

The explorations that a coach and coach partner do are like the explorations they might do if they were spelunking in an unfamiliar cave. The coach might walk ahead and shine her flashlight on what she sees as interesting, pointing things out to her partner. Or, the coach might walk behind and respond to whatever her partner finds with his flashlight. Or, the coach and partner might walk side-by-side, with each using a flashlight to notice some things of interest and with each responding to what the other sees.

This latter approach is coaching at its best. A coach does not feel responsible for taking a strong lead, and a coach does not merely respond to whatever her partner attends to. Rather, a coach walks side-by-side with her partner, and both share responsibility for the work. True, the coach leads subtly by guiding the process and by asking good questions. However, a coach is not effective when she runs ahead and feels responsibile for determining what is important to look at.

As a coach, don’t try too hard. Trust the process, trustyourself, and trust your partner!


Dealing with Differences in PLTs

December 12, 2010

The greatest obstacle to the success of professional learning teams (PLTs) seems to be the inability of teachers to address differences among themselves. This is not a characteristic of teachers alone: look at our communities, our government, and nations around the world. It is difficult to deal with difference.

When teachers in a PLT differ, individuals likely respond by pretending there is no disagreement or by exerting their power so that their view prevails. Neither of these approaches is productive in the long run.

I am thinking deeply about how teachers can deal with difference as a part of their PLT work. I will share my ideas here on this blog as well as in workshops that I am creating for PLTs.

The first step in addressing disagreements among PLT members may be to recognize that disagreements will always occur in groups of people. It is “normal” for people to see things differently.

Further, differing views can actually enhance the process, if PLT members can see the potential for learning from competing viewpoints.

The researchers Pam Grossman, Sam Wineburg, and Stephen Woolworth (2001) found that a sign of a mature PLT is that its members expect conflict and deal with it openly and honestly.

So, the starting point for PLT members is to recognize their differences and approach them without fear or panic.

Coaching for Implementation

October 4, 2010

Lon is an educational coach at Hoover Middle School. He began the year with coaching conversations that focused on individual teachers’ challenges and interests, as identified by the teachers. Things were going great until his principal asked him to focus his coaching efforts on the successful implementation of the Marzano system for planning instruction. Lon was frustrated – his initial plans were being stymied!

It seems Lon is not the only coach with this dilemma. It is somewhat common for school leaders to ask coaches to focus upon a particular goal or program that is being implemented. My wish is that coaches could focus mostly upon teachers’ needs and interests, because that is job-embedded coaching at its purest. However, coaches like Lon do not need to panic.

First, let’s look at the difference between teacher-focused coaching and school-goal/program-implementation-focused coaching.

  • Client: The client in teacher-focused coaching is, obviously, the teacher. With school-goal/program-implementation-focused coaching, the clients are: the teacher AND the goal or program AND perhaps the leadership team at the school. Coaches can still partner with their teacher clients but must consider other clients as well.
  • Starting question: An effective question with which to start the teacher-focused coaching conversation is: When you think about the learning you want your students to do and the teaching you want to do, what gets in the way? An effective question for the school-goal/program-implementation-focused coaching conversation is: When you think about implementing _______, what gets in the way? In the latter situation, a coach still invites the teacher partner to start where she is, but the focus is narrower.
  • Sign of success: Teacher-focused coaching is successful when the teacher has met an individual goal or solved a problem. School-goal/program-implementation-focused coaching is successful when the school has met its goal or the program is successfully implemented.
  • Process: The cycle of coaching in teacher-focused coaching usually follows the path of Problem-Understand-Decide-Try. In other words, coaches help teachers to identify a problem, understand it deeply, make an informed decision, and try something different. In school-goal/program-implementation-focused coaching, the initial step is to start with the school goal or program and then identify a problem blocking teacher partners’ ability to implement it. The rest of the cycle follows the same pattern of Understand-Decide-Try.

As this comparison indicates, coaching that focuses on a school goal or the implementation of a program is not entirely about teachers. On the other hand, teachers are still key to the coaching process and the conversation is job-embedded to the extent that teachers address their own concerns, challenges, and needs in relation to the school goal or program.

Savvy coaches can include other topics in their coaching conversations. For instance, Lon had a short chat with teachers at the September staff meeting in which he told them that he would begin the next round of coaching conversations by asking what was getting in the way of their implementation of the Marzano planning process. But he also told them that, after a cycle of coaching for implementation of the Marzano process, he would then invite a cycle of problem solving that was open-ended. In the third cycle, he would ask again about the Marzano process, and so forth.

Lon’s colleague Debbie at Eisenhower Middle School is taking a slightly different approach. She is asking this modified Question at the start of each coaching cycle: When you think about the learning you want your students to do, the teaching you want to do, and the use of the Marzano system for planning that teaching, what gets in the way?

When coaches are asked to coach for a particular school goal or implementation of a program, their work becomes more complex and perhaps a little less responsive to their teacher partners. However, coaches can continue to do good work that helps teachers build capacity to help students be more successful.

Avoid a Common Coaching Mistake: Talking About Rather Than Talking With

June 16, 2010

Bethany is an excellent teacher with a lively, engaging classroom. Most of this is due to her personality and talent as a teacher, but a small part of it has been the inviting learning environment that she created in her classroom, including lots of children’s work on the walls, curtains on the windows, and attractive spaces for different kinds of engagements. Well, that part of her effectiveness changed last year when the fire marshal in her community decided to inspect the school’s classrooms for fire dangers.

You see, in Bethany’s state, there is a statute prohibiting teachers from hanging on their classroom walls and windows too much flammable material. (My own surprise at this statute—one I had never heard of, even after many years serving as a teacher and administrator myself—led me to investigate and learn that quite a few states have similar laws.)

Bethany was required to remove 2/3 of the student work and all of the curtains from her walls and windows. Her classroom is still pleasant, and she is still an excellent teacher, but the classroom does feel different, less engaging.

The entire experience was upsetting for Bethany, but not really because she had to change her classroom décor. Yes, that matters to her, but the way she learned about the rule was what really upset her.

The principal at Bethany’s school made a classroom observation early last year, then left without a word. Somehow, though, Bethany got a negative vibe, and throughout that day she felt people were whispering about her. This was uncommon in Bethany’s school and unfamiliar to Bethany, who is well-liked and has a good relationship with the principal. She tried to see the principal later in the day but had no luck. Finally, Bethany visited with the custodian who, after some hesitation, said that the principal had told him that Bethany had too many flammable materials on her walls and would be in trouble with the fire marshal.

In other words, Bethany was talked about rather than talked with. Finding herself talked about was far more upsetting than having to remove items from the walls. When one is not treated like a professional peer, whether the news is good or bad, one feels less-than. It is a shaky ground to be upon and leaves one wondering what else is being said. It limits trust, challenges relationships, and reduces communication.

Unfortunately, educational coaches sometimes fall into the trap of talking about teachers rather than with them. Coaches talk to principals, other coaches, other teachers, even their spouses, but sometimes avoid talking with the teacher that is the focus of all this talk. In such cases coaches are sometimes fearful of the conversation they might have with the teacher in question, nervous that whatever topic they broach will be poorly received by that teacher. In other cases coaches may be saying things about a teacher that they would never say to that teacher’s face.

If you find yourself talking about teachers, stop and consider: Would you be more of a partner to that teacher if you talked with him or her? If the answer is yes, then find a way to have the conversation. If the answer is no, then whatever you are saying is likely not helpful when you say it about that teacher, either. It is probably wisest to stop such talk entirely.

I urge you to be a true professional and avoid this trap.

Going with the Goers?

May 13, 2010

Workplace coaches are often advised to “go with the goers” when deciding with whom they might partner. The idea is that those who are eager to collaborate with coaches are going to be the ones who make the best coaching partners.

Everyone deserves and benefits from a coach, and this is true of the “goers” as well as others. However, educational coaches who start out with those teachers most eager to collaborate often find it difficult to move beyond that group and connect with others.

I suspect the reason for this is that the goers are seen by their colleagues as the ones who always volunteer, who are always eager, who are working with a level of zest that most people in any profession just don’t muster. And therefore, those goers are seen as different, unlike most, and therefore the fact that goers have connected with a coach means nothing to the rest of the teaching staff.

I have written elsewhere, including here in other blogs at this site, about working with the school leadership team to identify a pool of teachers who will be the priority partners for coaches. I do think that is the wisest approach in most cases. However, for coaches who, for whatever reason, do not use this approach, then I suggest identifying the teachers who are hubs.

In understanding the concept of hub, you might think about airports that are hubs. If your local airport is a regional airport – Grand Rapids, Spokane, or Pensacola, for instance – you likely fly to a larger hub on most all of your airline travels. Those hubs – Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta, O’Hare in Chicago, LAX in Las Angeles, for instance – are the places that many airlines fly to and from. They form significant links in the complex network of flights around the United States and beyond.

In a similar manner, some people are hubs in their workplaces. They are the ones who seem to know news first, the people others turn to for the details of new initiatives, the colleagues that one trusts to be in-the-know. Such human hubs are influential.

When coaches partner with teachers who serve as hubs in their schools, others take note. Such teachers are the ones who will tell their colleagues about the benefits of coaching partnerships and will get those colleagues to consider coaching partnerships for themselves.

Connect with the hubs and you will expand your influence as a coach!

Are You Coaching in the Right Direction?

April 14, 2010

Recently I heard a coach refer to her goal of moving teachers away from where they are to where we know they should go. My internal response was similar to hearing a musician hit the wrong note. It didn’t sound right.

OK, the movement part makes sense. Coaching isn’t coaching if no change occurs in the process. But moving away? That sounds off.

I think what bothers me is the idea that someone else – in this case, me, a coach – would have the wisdom to lead another person away from themselves. Many people try to do this, including members of the teaching, clerical, and counseling professions, but it feels, well, dangerous, to make such attempt. French philosopher Michel Foucault pointed this out when he described the pastoral power that is enacted when a “shepherd” attempts to know what is best for his “flock.” Sometimes, tending to others in such a way is indeed helpful, but sometimes it is harmful, and often one cannot tell in advance which it will be. Who am I to know what is best for another person?

What resonates with me is coaching that leads people closer to who they really are. Parker Palmer speaks of such efforts when he writes about creating hospitable places where the person’s shy “soul” can reveal itself. In such situations, a coach builds trust and asks good questions to help others listen to themselves and become more of who they are.

I know that teachers want to be successful, and I understand that the most enduring image of teaching is that of engaging with the student and responding to her needs. (See Nel Noddings’ book Caring for more on this.) As teachers we sometimes lose track of these wishes because we become tired, overwhelmed, or cynical; nonetheless, they are at the root of being for the vast majority of teachers.

 When I as a coach help teachers move closer to who they are, there is a palpable difference in the coaching conversation. A kind of shaky tenderness takes over. It feels like a sacred moment. I know this is the right path for me.

What to Do When Life in Schools Prevents Your Team from Meeting

March 24, 2010

Professional learning teams struggle to find time to meet. This seems to be universal. Part of the challenge is to arrange time when all team members are available to meet, but even when such time is set aside, individual team members often are unable to attend. In some cases, the professional learning team time competes with other meetings at school; in other instances, school events or field trips occur at the allocated time; as well, some team members need to leave school early and miss after-school gatherings.

School principals can eliminate some of these problems by declaring one week per month the week in which no meetings occur other than professional learning teams. Then, of course, the challenge will be to stick to this. It will be up to all school leaders, as well as all school staff members, to honor this commitment to professional learning.

Remember, we make time for what matters most!