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February 21, 2010

If you want to build a ship                          
don’t herd people together to collect wood 
and don’t assign them tasks and work,
but rather teach them to long for the 
endless immensity of the sea.

          — Antoine de Saint-Exupery                                    

If you think about the hardest work you have done as an educator, chances are that it was motivated by what you wanted for your students. If you have had a transformational experience as a teacher – an aha moment – chances are it occurred because you had a greater vision of what could be.

As coaches, we can help teachers’ learning by helping them create a sense of the possible, for themselves and for their students. Questions that can assist include:

  • What do you hope will be different at the end of this lesson?
  • If this problem is solved, what will it look like/sound like/feel like?
  • What difference for your students will you achieve by making this change?
  • How will your students be different as a result of this effort?
  • What are your big-picture goals as a teacher?
  • What are your hopes for your students this year?

Teachers want to make a difference in the lives of young people. As coaches, we can help teachers remember their wishes for their students and then work toward those visions by making informed decisions and following up to see what difference has been made.


Three Reasons Why Professional Teams Don’t Always Work and What to Do About Them (micro level)

February 12, 2010

In a recent post, I noted some reasons why the formation and organization of professional learning teams sometimes prevents them from being successful. In this entry I will address problems at the team level that prevent successful team collaboration.

1. Lack of clarity. Many teams are formed without a sense of purpose or desired outcome. This is especially true given that team collaboration has become somewhat of a fad. Leaders hear that teams are a good idea, so they mandate teams.

             Solutions. Be clear about purposes, outcomes, and roles of professional learning teams.


                        Why are we here?

                        What outcome are we aiming for?

                        What roles do we serve? Who is responsible for leading the team, and what does that


2. Inability to cope with differences among members. Professional learning teams often skate along smoothly so long as everyone agrees, but when differences crop up, team members get nervous, avoid interacting, or quickly change the subject. It is essential that teams learn how to manage differences. In fact, learning requires it. Note the metaphor I used a few sentences ago, of skating when everyone agrees. Teams that focus on agreement only typically skate along the surface. If they want to go deeper and explore the difficult questions and big challenges facing them and their work, they need to look at multiple perspectives, competing experiences, and opposing ideas. This is hard work but it yields greater learning.

             Solutions. Learn to address differences that arise during collaboration. Consider:

                       How can we move beyond nervousness when someone disagrees?

                       Can we find and opportunities rather than or opportunities – in other words, can we

                                            hold competing perspectives and learn from both?

                      What large goals and key values do we hold in common that we can remember

                                            when we navigate the difficult terrain of disagreement about details?

                      If team members have different experiences, can we assume that they are reporting

                                            their experiences accurately and then seek to learn from the complexity

                                            of this work?

3. Lack of engagement. Teams sometimes falter because participants don’t feel like they matter, or like the work matters.

           Solutions. Aim for team meetings in which all feel welcome and everyone feels like they will

           miss something important if they fail to attend. Seek to:

                       Learn about each individual; this requires listening.

                       Share roles and responsibilities.

                       Honor all perspectives, even those that are surprising or different from the majority


                      Make the purpose of each meeting clear.

                      Honor agendas yet record new concerns or ideas for future consideration.

                      Plan the next meeting’s agenda and purpose before the current meeting ends.

                      Check in with members to ensure that the team’s stated purpose is being


Effective learning teams don’t just happen, they evolve. A fascinating study by Pamela Grossman, Sam Wineburg, and Stephen Woolworth delineates aspects of this evolution. I have described this study and provided a citation at Click on “For Professional Learning Teams” and then “Resources.”

Coach for Thinking More Than Doing

January 20, 2010

Professional learning often involves learning new classroom practices. In fact, the term “best practice” has been codified to mean the highest goal from the perspective of some educators. Teaching is certainly performative, and it is certainly important to learn certain teaching moves, especially early in one’s career. The problem with a focus only on what one does as a teacher is that behaviors change quickly. It is easy to adopt a new teaching practice, and just as easy to let it go. (This is similar to a personal habit that one has attempted to change. For instance, many of us have begun a Monday morning with the changed practice of choosing to eat low-calorie food, and then by Tuesday morning we have changed our practice to one of (again) eating junk food!)

On the other hand, shifts in one’s thinking change more slowly than shifts in ones behavior. That is frustrating when there is a need for a quick response to a problem, but it is important when one is a coach and wants to have a sustained effect. When teachers shift their thinking, it takes more time, but that thinking is more likely to “stick.”

What’s more, the thinking aspect of teaching is often more important when making instructional decisions. When teachers merely decide to use different practices, they are often basing those decisions upon mandates, hunches, or the social influence of their colleagues. On the other hand, when teachers shift their thinking, they do so because they have engaged more deeply with information about students (i.e. data, broadly defined), knowledge of the content of instruction, or insights provided by pedagogy. This kind of learning goes deeper and provides a foundation for any changed practices that a teacher may also adopt.

Coaches and administrators often focus on what teachers do, rather than what they think, because behaviors are easier to gauge than thoughts. Understanding the information, knowledge, and insights that are influencing a teacher’s thoughts (and subsequent decisions) requires time spent in conversation. One can do a “walk through” of a classroom in search of practices in a matter of minutes. It isn’t possible to “walk through” a colleague’s brain in the same way!

I urge coaches to:

  • Begin coaching with conversation.
  • Develop questioning practices that attend to information about students, knowledge of instructional content, and insights about pedagogy.
  • Seek to be a learner, along with teacher partners, in deepening understanding and reflection.
  • Partner with teachers to understand why a practice might be adopted, when the focus does turn to behaviors.
  • Discuss their thinking and decision making with their teacher partners after they have provided demonstration lessons.
  • Think carefully about doing observations, particularly to gauge whether they will unduly focus upon doing and ignore thinking.

Why Learning Communities Don’t Always Work

January 12, 2010

Learning in communities is hot. At least the intention to learn in community is hot. The way this idea is translated into practice is often less-than-successful. I think this is because folks who promote collaboration often oversimplify what it means. They do this in a macro- and a micro- way.

At the macro level, learning leaders have taken the idea that learning is always social (see the work of Etienne Wenger if you question this notion) and assumed that that means learners always sit in circles around a table. Actually, the social nature of learning means that we are never alone when we learn, but that doesn’t mean we are always part of a collaborative team. For instance, when I read a book alone on my couch in the evening, I am still in collaboration with others: the author, the book’s editors and marketers, those who may have recommended the book to me, those whom I’ll tell about the book, those I am thinking about as I read, and others. Reading is social, but it doesn’t require a team in a conference room (although that could be interesting, too.) The oversimplification, then, is assuming that social takes only one form. Learning leaders would benefit from thinking more broadly about the many ways to support the social nature of learning. For instance, they might:

  • Ask questions that link learners: Who is pursuing the same questions that you are? How can you find out? How can I help you to connect?
  • Encourage learning connections via social media such as twitter, blogs, and nings.
  • Consider processes that vary learners’ connections. For instance, a team that is developing a new curricular document might meet face-to-face to brainstorm, then divide tasks and do some work individually (although still connected to their colleagues in an invisible web of shared purpose), then communicate online to provide initial responses to findings and products, and finally reconvene for a face-to-face meeting to review the project outcomes and make recommendations.
  • Look for existing connections among learners. Don’t assume that you need to form a team in order to connect one person with another. Develop an eye for existing communities of practice—i.e. groups that have a history of learning together (Wenger, 1999)—and find ways to honor and support them.

At the micro level, learning in community is oversimplified because we assume it just happens. More on that in a future blog entry.

Hurry Up and Coach

December 16, 2009

When I was in my twenties, I volunteered to host a surprise birthday party at my home.  There was only one problem: my walls were bare and my furniture was sparse. I was in transition from the hand-me-down décor that got me through late college and early adulthood, to coordinated furnishings and carefully selected artwork. In that in-between space, I was bringing 30 people to my home! I set out to decorate in one week.

Need I tell you that decorating a home in so short a time is an impossible task? On days one and two, I shopped for furniture and found some lovely pieces, all of which would be delivered in six to eight weeks – long after the party took place. I then made some trips to Pier One, where I grabbed several items from the clearance shelf and one or two splurges. And I found an art fair at the local exhibit hall, where I picked up a few framed wall hangings. I loved the furniture and still have some of it, but because it had to be ordered, guests at the party sat on my old couch and on folding chairs that I borrowed from school. The birthday cake sat on a card table. As for the accessories and wall décor, it was a motley mixture; I had purchased, but I hadn’t decorated.

This approach to one’s home—attempt to transform it in an emergency—parallels what some school leaders do when they think about upcoming mandated tests. They panic and try to find a quick solution, and sometimes they think of coaching as the answer. They pressure coaches to raise test scores and determine the effectiveness of coaching by the scores of students. Of course, this is a mistake.

The nature of coaching is that it is a partnership that has the potential to enhance teachers’ problem finding and decision making and to further a school staff’s commitment to professional learning. None of this occurs quickly, and none of it happens because someone else—e.g. the principal—said it should.

Coaching is about relationships, reflection, inquiry, insight. It is not about demands, pressure, expediency, or following orders.

When coaches feel pressure to raise scores, they tend to emphasize quick fixes in teachers’ behaviors. Such quick fixes sometimes do produce increased test scores, but the effort is usually temporary and improvements typically plateau. Acting under pressure rarely produces smart, insightful people, and, in the long-run, it often exacerbates existing problems by producing teachers and students who are even more disengaged, unmotivated by the meaninglessness of what they are being asked to do and angry that they have lost their voice and choice in the educational endeavor.

On the other hand, when coaches partner with teachers and when principals provide appropriate support and resources, students truly learn more and more deeply. I do believe that in these instances students’ test scores are likely to improve as well, but that is not the goal. The goal is enhanced community, deeper insight, greater meaning for schools and for life.

Learning is All

December 10, 2009

I have been thinking—again—about the future of education as we know it. In the short run, we are going to see demands for more similarity in public schools, driven by national standards and assessments. The window of what is possible is going to seem narrower and narrower. In the middle future, charters will provide options in education, some good, many mediocre, and most focused on a narrow view of children, teachers, and learning, one that seems salable in the marketplace of charter alternatives.

And then—things are going to blow wide open.

This revolutionary shift will occur because, while public educators and the policymakers who direct them are obsessing about minutiae that have nothing to do with children or learning, or clamoring to create the charter school that is marketable to whatever view of schooling their publics may hold, the “edupunks” in the digital world are creating ways to learn that have nothing to do with schools. This movement is beginning in “higher” education, where the rigidity of university requirements and rules is being replaced by online sites where people can access courses and knowledgeable others and therefore can learn just about anything. (For starters, check out the University of the People at and Peer2Peer University at All of a sudden, learning of virtually any kind and in any manner will be available to everyone who can use a computer (and, contrary to some beliefs, the digital divide is becoming narrow).

Lately, these seismic shifts – from a continued focus on “my-way-or-the-highway” views of schools to the faux-free-for-all of charters to the real free-for-all of learning without schools—have most of my attention. What is the role of someone like me, who is committed to making schools make sense for children and for the adults who work in them? And, in addition, what is the role of the clients with whom I partner, who are mainly teacher leaders, principals, and curriculum leaders? And what is the role for the teacher partners of all of my clients?

The answer I keep returning to is learning.

Learning is all.

In the short term, we must continue to focus our attention on learning—our own, in order to better serve students, and then the learning of children. We have a moral obligation to continue assuring that learning is taking place in our classrooms, yes, but learning is also our strongest tool in demonstrating the benefit of doing what we know how to do best. When others suggest that test scores must be used to determine teachers’ abilities and that the value of schools is demonstrated only in the way that they implement certain programs sanctioned by the Department of Education, our best counterargument is to show what children are indeed learning, and how. The “how” requires that we educators and leaders continue to learn as well. Our knowledge about and evidence of student learning are the most powerful arguments we have in support of different approaches to public education.

And, if the trend toward charter schools continues to build momentum, educators will again enact power if they can demonstrate the learning that takes place in certain kinds of charters. Of course, they also will continue to face the moral imperative that all students with whom they have influence do indeed continue to learn, in charters as well as the remaining traditional public schools.

And when the window truly opens to a wide variety of learning opportunities beyond the structures of what we now know as schools, the focus truly will be upon what is learned and how. The teachers of today who wish to continue teaching in this new world of learning, not schooling, will be the ones who can create learning environments and opportunities and who can mentor students engaged in such opportunities.

Teacher learning and student learning. Like never before, these will be the focus of this endeavor called education. (For those who are wondering, I am not so naïve to believe that corporate agendas and ideologies will be removed from such new views of learning, but the details remain to be seen.)

The greatest skill set that educators can possess, now and in preparation for the futue, is the ability to learn and to support the learning of others. For educational coaches, principals, and others who are visible leaders in schools, there is no time to lose in focusing on learning. For today and tomorrow, leadership of learning is essential.

Which Teachers Should You Coach?

December 5, 2009

In my last post, I suggested that coaches work with the teachers in their “pool.” How does one determine the pool of teachers to work with?

Start by looking at the total number of potential teacher partners. Those who coach full-time in one building might expect to work with up to 25 teachers at a time in a deep coaching relationship. Of course, this number is approximate; the actual number that is practical will depend upon whether the coaching is done with individual partners, one at a time, or with teams of teachers, as well as a variety of contingencies. But I find that, in general, coaches become overwhelmed if they try to work with more than 25 people at a time.

So, if you have 25 or fewer teachers in your building, then they are all in your pool and you will want to connect with each of them in a coaching partnership.

If you have more than 25 teachers in your school, then you need to determine which of those teachers will be in the pool that you focus upon. How to do this? Actually, I encourage you not to do it alone but to collaborate with your school leadership team. This team is experienced (and, I hope, skilled, otherwise you will need to do some shepherding) at looking at the big picture and at using a variety of data. Ask the team to focus particularly upon the school staffing pattern and a range of student data to determine where you could best focus your efforts.

How might a leadership team identify a pool? Here are some examples:

  • In an elementary school, the team might determine that the primary grades have a good deal of support with Reading Recovery, Title I, teaching assistants, or other resources, and therefore use that staffing pattern to suggest that the coach’s pool will be the teachers in the intermediate grades.
  • In a middle school, the team might recognize that English Language Learners have been assigned to one “house” per grade and therefore determine that a coach should work with teachers in those houses.
  • In a high school, the team might find evidence that students are struggling especially in the courses that are writing-intense and conclude that the teachers of such courses should comprise the pool with which the coach works.

Of course, new teachers, whether new to the profession, the building, or the grade/subject taught, are likely members of the pool.

Note that I did not give an example in which teachers who are considered by the leadership team to be weak or ineffective would be the ones in the pool. If this were the case, teachers would not want to work with a coach because it would be like publicly saying they were unsuccessful. What’s more, coaching is beneficial to a wide range of teachers. Also, it is not the role of a school leadership team to assess individual teachers; that is a supervisory task.

Once a pool of teachers is identified, ask the chair of the leadership team or the principal to explain to the staff how and why the pool was developed. This prevents teachers from wondering why you are engaging them in a coaching partnership.

I encourage you to begin a coaching conversation with each of the teachers in your pool. Of course, you will likely interact with teachers not in the pool as well, but make them a secondary priority and keep your work with them less intense than a typical coaching relationship. Also, consider revisiting the make-up of the pool part way through the school year, to determine if any changes should be made.