Tuesday, January 30, 2018

How Coaching in Schools Can Make a Difference

I feel sorry for educators, I really do. But it’s sorry in the sense that I wish I could help them clear away all the unnecessary detritus that clogs up their purpose and their mission. Wait, what? Yes, their purpose and their mission. I’ll get to that in a few more paragraphs.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how hard it is for educators—teachers and administrators. They suffer a deluge of emails from those who believe they have that certain something that will help do something for someone. That’s deliberately vague because the range of gambits offered is far too great. But every educator has seen the email or gotten the flyer (as opposed to “flier” that refers to a person who flies) intimating that if only this program is implemented great stuff will happen in the classroom, or if the school or district invests in this proven something-or-another that test scores will skyrocket or students will behave better or they will have the secret sauce for STEM or whatever the magic potion promises. Except that initiatives and programs and curricula and loads of technology tools or other goodies work only if implemented well. That, my friends, is the stickiest of wickets.

National Equity Project
I’m not saying some of this stuff won’t work or won’t make a difference. In fact, experience tells me that some of it can make a difference. But experience also tells me that implementation is not like flipping a light switch: it takes time and it takes commitment and it takes truly thinking about how best to implement, which means it takes time and it takes planning and it takes commitment. Administrators and school board members must be patient. They cannot expect miracles. They cannot declare at the end of a school year that “it hasn’t worked” if they’re not clear on what was supposed to happen and how it was supposed to happen.

Let’s take blended learning as an example. Lots of schools and districts have climbed on the blended learning train and more than a few are still racing to swing themselves up. Do they know what blended learning is? Do they know what it really constitutes? Do they know what it means for teachers? For parents? For kids? Do they know the impact on infrastructure? Are they aware of logistical implications? Have they considered how it fits with the culture of the school? Of the district? Have they considered how it complements or conflicts with other on-going initiatives? Or are they just glomming on to blended learning as one of the current, albeit sustaining, shiny trends in education?

Now I’m a fan of blended learning. I’ve been a fan of it since we called it modular, web-based learning over 15 years ago when the whole student-centered learning thing was becoming a thing. But I also know it takes time to implement well and that the implementation needs to be planned. I also know that some teachers get a wee bit tetchy (a word possibly first used by Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet in 1592) when asked to make any kinds of changes to their teaching, especially if their administrators aren’t quite clear on the expectations. Asking a teacher to go do blended learning isn’t enough.

So let’s talk about that purpose and mission. If you ask many teachers why they teach, you’ll get answers related to those moments when kids get it, when their faces light up because of some new learning or discovery. I was working with some 4th graders and had that thrilling moment when a young girl who’d been frustrated with trying to grasp a math concept literally shouted out, “Oh! NOW I get it!” and absolutely had to explain her learning to some of her classmates. You’ll get answers that relate to wanting to share their own joy of learning or their own passion for their content areas. Their purpose and mission? Their self-imposed long-term assignment? Their self-proclaimed life’s work? To make a difference in the lives of every child who crosses their threshold. Oh, they might not be quite that dramatic, but notice that when they talk about kids on their minds, it’s the ones who are struggling or the ones they can’t quite seem to reach or the ones for whom they haven’t found the best approach. Those are the kids that keep them up at night. Those are the kids that have them scouring the internet and social media to find new strategies and new ideas.

When an administrator proudly announces a new initiative, a new program, a new whatever, teachers begin to calibrate the cost of that new thing and try to ascertain if and how it’s really going to help them help their students learn and achieve.

In my work as an education consultant and instructional coach, I get to field questions from administrators about new things. One of the questions I try to ask is, “What do you hope this will help accomplish?” Or, if we’ve already had that conversation, I keep their wish list in mind and take the time to do some investigation. Based on what I think I know about the school and the teachers with whom I get to work, I try to offer suggestions about adoption. It might be that the cool shiny thing is only a cool shiny thing so, again, because of what I think I know, I might offer some suggestions for options.

On the other hand, I might also suggest we take a step back to do an audit of what’s already in place. It’s important for administrators to examine the initiatives they’ve tried to implement in their schools as well as the ones handed down by the district. I think principals should do a quarterly audit as their own form of progress monitoring, but I also think they cannot do that effectively unless they’ve determined what the what is for each grade.

Let me explain that last bit. Just recently I met with some administrators and we talked about blended learning: what it is, what it could be in their schools, etc. We talked about having a plan and reasonable expectations. As an extension of that, I asked principals to think about what they wanted blended learning to sound like and look like in each grade because how it might be implemented in first grade could be different from a reasonable implementation in fifth grade. And if their teachers aren’t clear on those expectations, they’re going to try to do what they can based on their own understanding, at least when the principal comes for an observation.

When I met the next day with a core group of their teachers, we had a similar conversation. We talked about what blended learning is and how different it might look in each of their rooms or at each of their grade levels. We talked about doing what makes sense based on their students and what they were trying to help their students learn as well as their resources and the logistical capabilities of their space. By the end of the day I believe that many of the teachers had a better handle on what they were trying to accomplish, and I know they felt relieved that there was no expectation to transform overnight, or even over the weekend. That we were going to start small and reasonably to figure it out until each teacher is comfortable and then move on to the next thing that makes sense. In the mean time, principals still have to find time to figure out their expectations for blended learning in their schools, and that is no small task either.

In the end, there is no end. The deluge will not stop. As new technological devices are developed, as new programs are rushed to publication to address the latest educational trend, as new professional development programs are designed to help train teachers to execute on those latest trends, the mass mailings will continue. To that end, I realize this is a commercial for coaching.

I know that coaching has become its own trendy thing recently, and a closer look at coaching will be my next blog post. But my experience shows me that sometimes teachers and administrators need that critical friend, that outside other to help them take a step away from the minutiae to revisit the bigger picture and to help them find the balance of paying attention to what teachers are doing as well as what students are doing. In the process of clearing a path through the promotional clutter, a coach can help investigate what could work and whether it supports the school culture and the school’s goals and objectives. A coach can help answer the question: “What does this help solve or what gap does this fill or what need does this meet?” The corollary question is: “Will this be a short-term solution or a longer-term solution?” I cannot begin to tell you of the number of times I’ve seen schools invest in something that is used with great enthusiasm for a month or two and then left to gather dust, virtual or otherwise, because it just didn’t seem to accomplish what anyone hoped. I sigh because I know that people didn’t ask the right questions before they pulled the trigger on the requisition or purchase.

To administrators who feel as though you’re on the edge of the abyss or just weary from the insistent pinging of those who believe they have the answer to whatever ails you and your school, think about hiring a coach. If you can’t hire one full-time, get a good consultant: someone who can visit with you several times a school year and who you believe will invest in you, your teachers, and your kids. In fact, I think a consultant might be the best option because they get to work with a variety of schools so they’ll bring experience from other schools and won’t lose that outside other perspective.

North Hanover Township School District
Here’s what we know: 1) there is no secret sauce and there is no magic potion or bullet or anything else that will suddenly and miraculously make a change in your schools; 2) it’s about the kids so whatever you do has to have clearly defined expectations for how that program, curriculum, resource, and/or technology could make a difference in each grade level AND have a reasonable timeline for that implementation to meet those expectations; 3) it’s about the teachers so whatever you do has to have clearly defined expectations that are reasonable and achievable and can be modified for the early adopters as well as the late majority; and 4) it’s about the community so whatever it is and whatever else is going on has to make sense for the culture of the school and its community.

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