Coaching Teachers Without Asking Why

At the end of last school year, one of the areas of learning that our faculty/staff identified was feedback.  Teacher to student, student to student, leadership to teacher, etc.  The campus wanted to learn more about how to offer feedback that was useful and could be leveraged for improvement.  Having this focus enabled me to return to some training I had received years ago based on the work of Carolyn Downey and the 3-Minute Classroom Walk-Through.  Click here for a strong description.

So what I find most valuable from the Carolyn Downey work is the reflective question.  Essentially, the idea is that after you complete your walk-through, either via email or a planned “bump into”, you share what you observed and then leave them with a reflective question.  Follow that with built in time for them to reflect on it.  Perhaps you tell them you’ll check back in later.  Or simply leave it open-ended.  The purpose is to have them reflect.

John Dewey

I find this most powerful when I focus on a decision that they made.  Perhaps its the strategy they used to check for understanding; or maybe its a choice they made to use segments of a video; or merely directing students to either work independently or collaboratively.  The point is that they select their next steps, they consciously decide to do something.  For many it is muscle memory.

I strive to ask the question in a manner that focuses them on an instant – a decision point.

“When you decided to have the students work collaboratively on the lab, what outcomes were you striving to achieve?”

“How do you think your lesson would have gone for the students if they had been provided guided notes for the video you showed?”

“When introducing a new concept, what do you consider when choosing a formative assessment tool or strategy?”

Each of the questions above works from a premise that they were fully prepared and thoughtful with the questions they asked, or the lesson they designed.  It then moves from there to a choice they made and asks them to reflect on it.

Could I have sought the same information by simply asking “why did you have them work with partners?” or “why did you or didn’t you provide guided notes?”  Maybe.  That’s certainly more direct.  However the word “why” is incredibly powerful.  Generally speaking, it leads the receiver of the question to take a defensive position.  And that is the last thing I want to do when building rapport for feedback.  Asking “why” can lead them to narrow their thinking just as I want them to expand it.

baby pondering

As you work toward having teachers understand the effects of the decisions they make, of the plans they develop, what strategies do you employ?

What would it look like for you to not use the word “why” for the next week with your students or your staff?

Saying & Hearing Thank You

Early on in my career, I was encouraged to keep a box near my desk.  You know, a receptacle for all the letters and cards and words of encouragement that would surely come my way. And as I made my way through that first month, and then that first semester, I began to wonder if my small shoe box was too lofty of a goal.  Or perhaps I simply wasn’t connecting with my students as I wished.  Finally, on a piece of green construction paper, 7th grader Robin had glued a handwritten letter offering me praise for simply not giving up. Those words helped me keep my footing through the winter break, survive the tough February days, and launch me toward the summer.  Twenty-five years later and I still have that letter. However I have outgrown the shoe box and find myself filling a nearby desk drawer dedicated to these positive messages. Not only does the drawer remind me of my better moments, days, months and years.  It also reminds me to take the time to share positive words with others.  black-shoeboxA challenge I had to overcome was allowing myself to simply receive the compliment.  Too often we deflect and say something like: “oh, it was my pleasure”, or “no, you are the one I should thank.”  When we do that we steal from them a small piece of the joy they have for us.  We rob them just a bit of the power that comes with recognizing another.  I would recommend that, instead, we simply say, “Your words mean a lot.  Thank you for taking the time to share them with me.”  I know this is easier said than done however I have learned that those few words carry more power.

world-is-giving-answers

Becoming friends on social media with former students can be another way to remain connected while also serving as a reminder that you had an impact on their life.  When someone chooses to include you in the minutiae as well as grand moments in their life, they are telling you that you matter. And as I engage in pictures, videos, and stories of their emergence into adulthood, those beaming moments around marriage, the celebrations of becoming a parent, I am quickly reminded of my impact.  And I work hard to give it all the space to breathe.

thank-you-post-it_languagesSo as you sustain your effort through this fall semester and look toward the grind of the early spring, I hope that you will remember the power you have each day to positively impact a young person.  Regardless of whether or not they find the right words to thank you, I am certain they appreciate what you do each day.  Perhaps they will write a nice card or draw you a picture. Or maybe they will come in one morning to share something amazing their family did over the weekend. Or it will be a simple smile they offer, a “thanks” on the way out of class, or a nod in the hall. Regardless of the form it takes, work hard to not miss it.  Because you are significant and they want you to know it.

How are you making sure that you are showing gratitude for others while also being able to receive it?

Be Loud & Be Proud

Not long ago I had the chance to hear Joe Sanfelippo talk about how each school must be willing to tell their story.  I’ve heard Joe share this discussion more than once and each time I take something different away from it.  That’s how it usually is, right?  Like a great book or movie, we learn something new with each experience.  Now I want to focus on one particular communication tool we have used for the past 5 years and I’m hopeful it can be of value to other schools either now or for the coming school year.  This event helps us tell our story and we call it Cardinal Kickoff.  The premise centers on the idea that we want to open our doors and show you everything that makes us #CardinalProud.

The description that follows is not a prescription or recipe, rather an example of how a school can take assets that already exist and organize them in a purposeful manner.

TYS Big

Cardinal Kickoff begins with parents arriving and finding our advanced guitar students playing in the auditorium foyer.  And as families grab a program and find a seat, there is a PowerPoint playing with pictures and quick facts cycling and a small string quartet sharing a few pieces.  This large group general session involves a 30 minute presentation focusing on the academic life, the means by which we communicate, and the various ways that kids can get involved on campus.  It’s mostly me talking with some short mixed media pieces to help inform.  The session ends with an introduction to the spirit within our school as led by our Cheerleaders.  As they teach the Color Shout to our future Cardinals you can feel the energy begin to climb within the room.  What follows is my favorite part.

Cardinal Kickoff Big

Students and families head to the cafeteria down hallways flanked with our jazz band playing.  And as a little pep enters your step, students can begin to see and hear the buzz inside.  Filling every corner of this large space are tables packed with posters, treats, memorabilia, and sign-up sheets. The room is filled with electricity powered by current students who are recruiting with the same zeal as a basketball scout that has just found the next Lebron James.  Prospective families make their way through the crowds, moving past the Robotics booth to the South Asian Student Union.  They grab a cookie from the Baking Club and enjoy the Anime Club videos.  Music blasts from a corner area with eMotions dancers in a freestyle break-dance session.  Finally they cruise past the Swimming and Lacrosse tables to find the Chess Club.  And each year as students leave the cafeteria, catching up with mom and dad, I often hear something along the lines of, “this school really does have everything.”  Cardinal Kickoff allows us to show off the student life that exists on campus, an element that fully complements our academic program.  The student life portion of the high school experience is alive on our campus.  As a staff member said the first year as the event closed – we are big, we are loud and we are proud.

I share all of this as an example of how we try to tell our story.  And as I reflect on the event, I offer another conclusion that I have reached – one that might be even more important.  I have learned that while I thought we were telling the story to families on the outside, the most ardent consumers were the students and staff within the building.  You see, for many of them this was a chance to learn themselves about all that we offer.  Students were finding out that we had all these programs, and these opportunities, and that made them proud.  And they began to share that same story to others on campus.  And the resulting energy, excitement, and enthusiasm have been the greatest rewards.

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Telling your story doesn’t just benefit people that are looking for the best school.  Deciding to share all that makes you proud is just as important to those already on the inside.  Stories teach us and they also remind us.  They have the power to get us through the toughest times in the spring semester and they can propel us toward the fall.  Momentum can spring from telling your story.  It doesn’t matter if you share it with a microphone in your hand or while standing in line at the grocery store.  The point is that you are the only person that can.  I hope you’ll consider the power of your school’s story and commit to start telling it today.