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?

My 2 Week Personalized Learning Adventure

25 years.  Nearly a quarter century.  I have worked in education and within my single school district for more than half of my life.  Goodness.  And while I may not be able to explain just how I made it this far, how I stayed afloat through all the tough times, and how I stayed away from burnout and boredom, I do know that if you don’t continue to try things, to experiment, and to commit to remaining a learner, then you surely won’t make it.

Each of the last several years we have been given two consecutive weeks of professional development (PD) time with our faculty.  Now at first glance, you might believe that to be wonderful and such a welcome gift from the school gods.  However, I have learned that, as educators, we do much better with kids around.  Two solid weeks of only adults on campus can be taxing.  The energy, the zeal, and the urgency aren’t there when kids are not present.  We need them as much as they need us. The flip side is that designing two weeks of learning for your teachers that is not full of sitting in the cafeteria/auditorium/multi-purpose room and seeming like yet another meeting, can be daunting.  As the Principal, I have to remember that teachers want to move in, work with their teams, and prepare for the first day of school.  I have to give them that time. With all of that in mind, and as June headed in to July, I began to focus on planning PD for my 190 teachers.  I sharpened my focus on how to move from structured to personalized professional development.

Death bu Inservice

So this is my 5th year as campus principal and 9th year on campus.  I have a strong understanding of my faculty and staff, and thus I wanted to try something different.  Simultaneously I wanted to create a setting whereby they re-engaged as learners while also respecting them as professionals.  I wanted to model choice and creativity and exploration.  Crafted similar to a conference format, I aspired to build something I had not, personally, ever experienced.  This was critical to me as I believe that these very elements, when put in to practice within our classrooms, lead to more authentic engagement by our students.

In a nutshell this was my plan.

During the first of our two weeks, I included all the usual stuff: a welcome back presentation from me, time for PLCs and Departments to meet, and devoted moments for everyone to complete the required online district trainings.  However this year I gave them a learning menu in the form of a Tic-Tac-Toe board that had new experiences as the nine blocks.

Tic Tac Toe Board

  • Chit Chats are 25-30 minute gatherings around a central topic or question.  Each of these Chit Chats was scheduled for six over the two weeks.  There was no formal presentation and each person could attend if they choose.  If the topic didn’t appeal to them then don’t come.  Keep working with your teams or on your own planning.  The Chit Chats were organic and I merely brought the food.  Cookies in the afternoon, donuts in the morning, and fruit for the mid-morning session.
  • Make & Take sessions are focus on a single strategy, skill, or tool.  These 45 minute sessions provided a forum for you to learn something specific that you could immediately incorporate in to a specific lesson (or simply in to your classroom).  I offered ten of these sessions during the two weeks of PD.
  • A Learning Lunch is centered on a larger question.  Both Wednesdays included these with the understanding that everyone brought their own food, and that we would sit in a giant circle.  While I opened each session with a reminder of the general question, and affirmed that participation is completely voluntary, it was not uncommon for me to stay silent the rest of the time as the teachers drove the discussion, and thus their learning.

The common threads among each of these three events begins with the fact that they were elective learning opportunities.  If someone wanted to learn about the topic – whether by actively participating or merely lurking – then they could do so.  Most of the sessions were not formally led by me or anyone from my leadership team.   Finally, each of these new experiences were chances for them to elect to learn.  That was the key in my mind.  Providing the setting for them to experience choice and then make a decision.  Now the Tic-Tac-Toe board could be turned in for prize drawings – if they choose to do that.  There were no signatures required as this was not any type of compliance piece.  Teachers are professionals and I wanted my faculty to feel that in an overt way.

I also asked teachers to join our faculty/staff Remind group and I used electronic communication to remind them of upcoming learning sessions that would be available. Joining our 11 day Twitter Challenge was also an option.  Finally, the center block  of the Tic-Tac-Toe board was each of them signing up and participating with a team during a BreakoutEDU session.

A large part of my learning in this adventure included a deep dive in to so many digital tools.  Making use of Google Docs, Remind, and Google Forms (to gather feedback & add topics over the two weeks) allowed me to communicate in a manner I couldn’t have before the technology.  My agenda was not a static document – I was able to change and adjust.  Agility was on display and that also was an approach I wanted to model for my faculty.

Jumper

I don’t yet know how it is being received or how effective it will end up being.  And I’m a little nervous about that.  Similar to my most recent blog post My Attempt at #GeniusHour with Adults, we have asked all of our teachers to choose something they want to learn about this semester or school year.  Now it may not completely meet the district expectations and I’m probably taking a bit of a gamble with that.  However I do believe it is the right approach THIS year with THIS faculty.  I now know that choosing to be a learner – whether your 1st year or 40th year as an educator – is critical to each of us staying relevant for our teams and, most importantly, for our students.

What types of behavior are you modeling for your teachers as the start of school approaches?