The Purpose of Education Is to What???

  Audio version of this post.

I’ll admit it.

When I go to parties I can’t help myself.  As much as I try to avoid it, I inevitably talk about education.

Especially if there’s beer.  One good IPA will get me waxing poetic about my vision of education for pretty much the entire night.

I’ve never actually had two in one sitting.  I can only imagine the diatribe of fostering students’ passions and deep learning that would result from a double Union Jack or L’il Sumpin’ Sumpin.

Usually, these discussions involve my educator friends (That would be most of them).  But on my favorite nights, I’m chatting with a new person, a non-educator person, a person who has a career outside of the classroom who is killin’ it in the “real world.”

At this particular party, it was Anti-Hero, on draught.  And an economist.  Double Trouble.

The outcome? A completely thought-provoking conversation about more than just education.

So much so that I’m still thinking about it over two weeks later.

Sourdough, A Blog, & Some Calculus 

“I’ve been working on mine for days.  It’s a delicate process.” Two gentlemen close to me were having a rather intense conversation about something that sounded like it could be food related.  I’d heard there was going to be a guy at this party who had recently taken a fairly lengthy sabbatical to create a blog based on the science of food (which of course piqued my interest).

Based on what I had overheard I assumed one of them had to be him.   I grabbed my drink and headed over.

“What are you guys talking about?”

“Sourdough.”

“Sourdough??”  I responded incredulously prompting one of the men to start telling me about the process.   Based on the amount of information he was giving me I was now positive this was the guy I had been hearing about.  I was just about to ask him about his blog when my friend Sarah came over.  (The birthday girl)

“Oh!  So you met S!  Did you know he has a food blog?”

And that’s how the epic conversation began.  It turns out that S’s company granted him an 18-month sabbatical and he and his wife actually traveled all over the world for it.  He even ended up contributing to a few cookbooks during this time.  To make the story even more amazing his company actually continued to pay him part of his salary during the entire time he was on leave.

I had to know more. “So, what do you actually do?”

“I work in capital markets. Basically, I help multinationals manage their global foreign currency, commodity and interest rate risk.  We help their treasury department to set up a sophisticated and efficient risk management policy and structure.”

“So like an actuary?”

“I use some of the same math, but no, not an actuary.” He then explained to me in more detail what he actually does on a daily basis helping me to understand the difference.  It sounded insanely interesting and super mathy (which you know I am obsessed with) and I found myself wishing someone would have explained more math-related career options to me when I was trying to decide what to study in college.  But I’ll get into my point about that later.

“So how can I follow your blog?”  I asked as I pulled out my phone to open up the WordPress app to find it.

“It’s pretty easy.  Just look up my name.”  The bar had suddenly gotten louder so I had a hard time hearing which prompted me to move closer.

“I see you have the WordPress app.  Do you blog as well?”

And that was that.  I explained that yes, I had JUST started blogging and my passion was education.  I told him that I am most passionate about creating learning experiences in school that better prepare kids to be successful in the innovative and dynamic world we live in.

So, of course, this led to me asking him about his school experience.  How much of what he learned in college and high school did he feel prepared him for what he currently does?  (I’m not shy.  I have no qualms about asking people fairly personal questions regarding education.)

“A lot actually.  I use a ton of calculus in my work.  Most of my classes in college were math related.  They built on the math I learned in high school. I learned about finance and economics.  I wouldn’t say I’m in the majority though.  I think the statistic is something like less than 8% of math taught in school is used in jobs and the percentage is even smaller for daily usage.  Don’t quote me on that though.”  (On a side note, I was curious and looked this one up after our conversation.  He was pretty accurate.  Check out this article in the Atlantic.  I was surprised to read that it’s more prevalent that blue collar jobs that use calculus in their roles.)

We talked more about school and how I thought that we needed to include more opportunities for students to grow curiosity and build creativity.   That many students see themselves as poor students or not smart because of the emphasis historically placed on how well they do in traditional subjects.  (Not that they aren’t important, but that we need to broaden our definition of intelligence)  If we changed schools from a focus on compliance to giving students meaningful learning experiences connected to the world around them, we would empower them to grow their passions, build on their strengths, and leave school already knowing the gifts they have to offer.

We agreed a lot during our conversation, each person adding in a different layer to the conversation.  But at the end of our talk, he challenged me on one thing.

One MAJOR thing.

“You know people shouldn’t create a career out of their passion right?”

Huh?  This one surprised me.  He had just taken an 18-month sabbatical from his career to travel around the world creating a food blog. (which I still think is totally awesome)

“I remember seeing a title of an article about something like that on Medium recently.  Tell me more.”

“School can’t be about people following their passions.  It’s not economical.  It could never work for society.  You remember the bread conversation we had earlier?”

“Yes.”

“Well, homemade bread will always taste better, but it’s not practical for everyone to make it daily.  When mass produced bread was created it allowed people all over the world to start eating it on a daily basis.  It solved a problem, especially for poor families.”

“You run into the same issue with careers.  Think about the limited amount of jobs out there for people with a specific talent or passion.  Mathematically it just doesn’t work out.  There’s no way that every job would match up with every individual.  Besides the point that most of those types of jobs don’t pay well or the higher salaries only go to a select number of people who become specialized and well known for that area.  Take chefs for instance.  The ones who are slaving away working in regular or even elite restaurants are making probably…(he listed a figure, but I honestly cannot remember the total)

Even though they are doing something daily that they love they are scraping by most of the time.  When I was on my sabbatical if my company hadn’t continued to pay me a percentage of my salary there’s no way I could have gotten by.  The entire sabbatical I probably made about $30,000 and that was including money made from contributing to a few cookbooks.

We need students to learn skills in school that will prepare them for jobs that will make them money.  If we don’t, we are essentially setting up a greater economic burden.”

Wow.  I had to think about that one.  I understood his point about the mathematical probability of matching everyone’s career with their ideal passion, but I also know that if there’s a will there’s a way and people who are passionate about something will make something new.  That’s how innovation works and the world changes right?

Seeing so many stories in the news lately about the middle-class shrinking and jobs being replaced by technology gave me pause though.   Plus, it was midnight, and this party girl was about to turn back into a mommy.  So I offered a few ideas and thanked him for the thoughtful dialogue.  We both agreed to follow one another’s blogs and I left the bar to drive back to the suburbs.

Preparing Students for Success…in Anything

One of my favorite quotes from AJ Juliani is:

“Our job is not to prepare students for something.  Our job is to help students prepare themselves for anything.”

For me, it’s a great anchor for making decisions about school.  At some point, I seriously need to get it framed.

So when I was reflecting on the drive home, this quote immediately came to mind.  If we are going to prepare students for ANYTHING (or rather empower students to prepare themselves), a definition of what anything constitutes is important to define and explore.

In the context of the conversation I had with S, I wanted to explore more the economic side of that supposition.

If you look at the unemployment trend from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), over the past ten years unemployment peaked in 2009 at 9.9%, but has been on a steady decline annually since and in December 2018 was 3.9%.  That being said, according to the BLS Economic Situation Summary from Jan. 2019, there are still 6.3 million adults in the United States who are unemployed. 

A few days after my conversation, an article from Fortune magazine titled, The Shrinking Middle Class: How We Can Fix It, ended up in my inbox adding another layer to the economic conversation.  According to the article, the middle class in the United States has been steadily shrinking over time due recently in part to the burgeoning “gig economy.” (Many people associate this with jobs like Uber, but it can be any kind of contract work.)  People make a wide range of wages in these jobs, but what is causing a greater problem for many of them is that benefits like health insurance or a 401(K) are not included in the position.  As a result, many are living paycheck to paycheck, in a constant state of stress.  According to the Public Religion Research Institute, as much as 48% of contract employees struggle with poverty.  

Besides the gig economy, the author also attributes private equity as another major factor in the decline of the middle class.   These private investors often borrow heavily to purchase a company placing them greatly into debt.  In order to repay their loans as well as investors, they have to “wring cash from holdings,” leaving little money to pay workers.  Sears and Radio Shack are cited as examples of employees who suffered from this practice.

To find solutions to these problems the Fortune staff reached out to a variety of business leaders, economists and politicians to ask their opinion.  The responses were mostly related to government-provided solutions such as raising the minimum wage, creating legislation requiring companies to provide benefits regardless of employment status, childcare tax credits, or universal basic income (UBI).  The article even recommended emulating the government of Denmark where 98% of households with children under age 15 receive financial assistance from the government. 

So what about the other side?  The jobs that are out there?  What skills do they require?  LinkedIn annually analyzes hundreds of thousands of job postings to find out what careers are growing as well as what skills companies are looking for to fill these positions.  In their recently published 2019 Report, the most promising jobs are wide ranging from Machine Learning Engineer at number 15 with a projected 96% increase to Data Scientist at number one, projected to have a 4,000+% (wow! is that number even possible???)  increase in job openings this year.  The other Top 5 positions on this list include Product Owner, Product Designer, Enterprise Account Executive, and Site Reliability Engineer.  My favorite on the list was a position called a “Scrum Master.” You would not believe my disappointment when I found out this was not a pirate-related career, but someone who is involved in agile software development and project management.  With the exception of Customer Success Manager, all of these jobs had median base salaries of $100,000+.  

Additionally, LinkedIn uses this analysis to come up with the Top 5 hard skills as well as soft skills that companies are looking for.  Job seekers can use this information to improve their employability by acquiring these skills and listing them on their resumes.  For 2019, the hard skills most in demand are cloud computing, artificial intelligence, analytical reasoning, people management and UX design (user experience design).  Making my heart (and Sir Ken Robinson’s) do a happy dance was the fact that creativity debuted as the number one soft skill companies are looking for.  Time management, adaptability, collaboration and persuasion round out the rest of the list.  

Implications for Education 

So, what’s the final verdict?  Is the purpose of education to build students’ strengths, develop their passions and foster their natural curiosity or is it to give students the skills and strategies so that they are qualified for a successful and high paying job?   If we’re using the Juliani Standard (Yes, I made that up, but it should be a thing right?), then the correct answer is YES!

Reviewing and reflecting upon current economic problems as well as needs in the complex world we live in, schools are clearly not adequately preparing many students for the society they are graduating into, much less inspiring them to chase their passions and change the world.  I admire the contributors to the Fortune article for brainstorming ideas to help others who are very much struggling in this new economy, but what they are not recognizing (with a few exceptions) is that no matter how much legislation we put into place, if we do not fill the knowledge and skill gaps of the individuals involved then we are just continually perpetuating a cycle of dependence on others.  

Despite various government interventions over generations to help lessen the disparity between social classes in the United States we continue to have little growth in closing the gap.  According to a 2018 report from the PEW Research Center, median middle-class income increased 6% from $74,015 in 2010 to $78,442 in 2016 with lower-income households (29% of adults) increasing 5%.  Although those percentages point to a similar gain, when we look at actual median income dollars, 5% is really only an increase from $24,448 to $25,624 or a little over $1000 in a six-year period.  Even worse, the median income was actually higher in the year 2000 ($26,923) indicating a negative growth over the past twenty years for low-income households.

We need to empower students before they enter the workforce not only with the technical skills to be successful, but with the understanding of what it takes to succeed in every aspect of a very dynamic world.  We have a moral imperative as well as an incredible opportunity in education to close the gap during this innovative time known as the 4th Industrial Revolution.  

In his book What School Could BeTed Dintersmith shares stories of amazing schools and educators that are both inspiring students and causing them to thrive in the world beyond school.  In an epic journey he took to visit schools in all 50 states in just one year’s time he found these schools incorporated the following elements into learning :

Purpose: Students believe in the importance of their work.

Essential Skills and mindsets: Learning experiences foster competencies that are essential to adults (e.g., creative problem solving, critical analysis, communication, collaboration, citizenship, character).

Agency: Students create their learning experiences, set their goals, manage their progress, and evaluate their work.

Deep, retained Knowledge: Students develop real mastery of the topics they study. They can apply it, ask thoughtful questions about it, and teach others.

When I think about the elements of PEAK, my passion has been in making learning meaningful by incorporating students’ personal interests and building their strengths.  They have created projects, set their own goals and reflected on their progress.  I have observed this strength in many of the educators I have worked with in the past as well as present trying out a variety of new ideas including passion projects or genius hour, flipped classrooms and in general giving students more input in the classroom and designing learning with individuals in mind as opposed to following a boxed curriculum.  

When I reflect on the other parts of PEAK, combined with the findings of the LinkedIn 2019 Jobs Report I realize that I myself have some huge knowledge gaps of what the current and future “real world” constitutes.  Although I have played around a bit with coding and have a basic understanding of Artificial Intelligence and the implications it has for our society, I have zero idea what UX design really entails other than what I have read in articles.  Many of the jobs listed in the report were fairly foreign to me.  So how can I take the abstract concepts I’m teaching to students and give them relevance and meaning when I myself don’t have this knowledge?  

Beyond reading about these jobs or taking some online courses to educate ourselves in these skills, the true learning is going to come from actual experiences themselves.  What if part of the professional learning we offered our teachers involved spending the day at companies that did the work that our students may be doing one day?  This could be an ongoing collaboration and partnership where employees visit the schools as well and mentor kids in the school.  In reflecting on the P or Purpose in PEAK, kids would see any subject, but especially math as so much more meaningful when they see how it is incorporated into jobs that people are currently succeeding at.  We spend a lot of time telling kids, “you’re going to use this one day,” but very little time giving them experiences in what that actually looks like.  

What to Start?

As an educator you may be thinking this is great, but how can I actually do all of this?  I have standards to meet and a curriculum to follow and I don’t really have control over much of the professional learning in my building or district.  

Start small.  

If you’re not already regularly incorporating student interests and strengths into your lessons start there.  It can be as simple as looking at problems you are using in your math lesson and changing the context to include experiences your students have had or topics they are interested in.  Even more empowering, have your students help you with this process.  In literacy, offer them choice in what they are reading or topics they are writing about.  When you are planning and evaluating the work that you will be asking them to do think about whether this work is going to cause them to gain meaningful skills that will prepare them for their future or just an experience that will reinforce the target of the day.  I understand that sometimes the necessary answer is the latter, but we need to show students how practicing that one small skill will lead to a much greater purpose.  

Approach lesson planning with a broader perspective.  Many of the jobs, as well as skills that students need to be successful in these jobs, require students to work across disciplines drawing from a variety of strengths.  When you reflect on the standards you want your students to achieve what is the common thread that links them all together?  Create a Big Question that students are working to answer during the week.  Instead of teaching reading from 9:20-10:20, math from 10:20-11:20 and science from 1:20 to 2:20, approach each day with the lens of that question.  This will help students to make more connections, ask deeper questions and see learning as a connected process which is more analogous to the work they will do one day in their career.

Although you may not be able to time shadowing people in their work, talk to your friends who are in a different field.  Find out what they do regularly and what skills or attributes they needed to be successful.  Start following experts in a variety of areas on Twitter.  Expand your PLN to include people who are in a different field or who have a different perspective than you.  Look for ways to incorporate how the learning experiences you are providing fit into these fields.  Better yet, share the 2019 jobs report with your class and have the students explore what the careers and skills described entail.  

Try new things.  There are so many free courses out there where you can learn many of the skills that were listed in the LinkedIn Report.  This list from the Muse is a great start.  Next on my list is their graphic design course.  I plan on incorporating what I learn into a student production group I am working with this year.  

Final Thoughts

In the book Deep Learning: Engage the World, Change the World, the authors (Fullan, Quinn, McEachen) discuss something called the Equity Hypothesis which posits that if we give students deep learning experiences (those that incorporate the 6 C’s of creativity, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, character and citizenship) then we will engage all students at high levels essentially closing the economic gap that has existed for generations.  

When thinking about the purpose of school in the context of the conversation I had with S, it’s not an either or, it’s a synergy of one thought leading to the other.  People can pursue their passions AND make money doing it.  It’s up to us as educators to make that happen by making the school experience more readily prepare students for the complex world we live in.

In case you were wondering, S and I are now Facebook friends.  We have plans to continue the conversation at a future date.  I’m sure it will be equally as thought-provoking and I will share any new thoughts that evolve.

As always, thank you for reading (or listening).  I know this was a long one.

Christina

Teaching Like a Coach – Part One

I’ve had a lot of great conversations since starting this blog about teaching and coaching and how the two are intertwined.  Two of the questions that have come up a lot are 

How do you ACTUALLY teach like a coach? 

What does that look like in real practice?  

This has gotten me to reflect about my own practice in a variety of roles in education as well as how for many of us, our schooling did not prepare us for teaching this way.  As many of you are doing your own reflecting and planning over Winter Break for changes and refinements you want to make in 2019, I thought that a series of posts dedicated to answering these two questions would be timely and hopefully useful. 🙂

It All Starts With…

Knowing your team.  I’m not going to try to pretend that I am the greatest basketball fan of all time, but I’ve learned a lot from Phil Jackson’s leadership philosophies via Dr. Marc Pinto.  He was a hockey coach and geneticist turned chiropractor whom I would have the most amazing conversations at our weekly appointments.  Dr. Pinto had read Phil Jackson’s books cover to cover hundreds of times and no matter what we were discussing his philosophies seemed to always creep into our conversation, especially when I was applying for the learning support coach position in Naperville.  One of the quotes from his book 11 Rings: The Soul of Success that really resonates with being a coach in the classroom is: 

“My approach was always to relate to each player as a whole person, not just a cog in the basketball machine. That meant pushing him to discover what distinct qualities he could bring to the game beyond taking shots and making passes. How much courage did he have? Or resilience? What about character under fire? Many players I’ve coached didn’t look special on paper, but in the process of creating a role for themselves they grew into formidable champions.” – Phil Jackson

I love that Phil Jackson’s goal wasn’t just to create amazing basketball players, it was to build on the strengths of his players overall and in that action he created a dynasty.  Our main job as educators is to help learners to know their strengths, develop their passions and help them to develop new abilities that sometimes feel outside their grasp.  In order to be effective at this you have to essentially know your team inside and out.   

Deciding what skills you will be looking for is a critical first step.  There are so many options that it is easy to get stuck here, weighing the options.  If the thought of that is already making your head spin, here are some ideas to start with:

1.  The 6 C’sCommunication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, Creativity, Character, Citizenship

This is helpful for:  Promoting more global skills in your students that will transfer to a variety of contexts, subjects, and ages.

Something to think about:  Because these are broad skills you might want to have a conversation with others or your PLC about what each of these look like at the age of students you teach to create a specific definition of each.

2.  The Standards – The Common Core State Standards (CCSS), Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), College, Career & Civic Life (C3), ISTE Standards for Students

This is helpful for:  Collecting information that is more related to academic achievement in different subject areas (with the exception of the ISTE standards that are more global like the 6C’s)

Something to think about:  If your school uses standards based reporting, this is a great place to start.  Because the standards are vast, it might be good to see how the broader ideas from each of the subject standards are connected.  This document from NGSS does a nice job of making this connection already.

3.  Student Interests & PassionsThis one is pretty self-explanatory.  You are collecting information on things your students are interested in, especially the topics they are passionate about!  These interests and passions are often strengths we overlook because they may not be subjects we teach in school.

This is helpful for:  Diversifying the definition of what a good student is.  Helping students to be able to name a wide variety of skills they have that aren’t necessarily taught in school, but still incredibly valuable.  Creating engaging lessons connected to your students’ interests and passions.  

Something to think about:  You may find that your students have a broad range of interests and passions.  If you are overwhelmed in how to honor these strengths or incorporate them into the curriculum, ask the students what they think.  I am always blown away by the ideas my students come up with when I can’t seem to find a solution.  

So How Do I Organize All This Stuff?

You probably have your own way of keeping data on your students.  I know I certainly tried it a million different ways as an educator, coach, and now administrator.  What I found was there are basically two different ways you can go about this: individual or whole group.  Regardless, you are going to need a system that works for you, the simpler the better. 

Individual

As an instructional coach I started with OneNote for keeping notes on each of my meetings with teachers and eventually moved to a Google folder per teacher.  If I was back in the classroom I would most likely the Google.  Here’s what I would do:

Idea #1

  •  Create a Google form for the data I would like to create.  (Like this one that tracks the 6C’s) 
  •  Use the Doc-Appender Add-on so that the data I collected would automatically populate into individual Google folders for each student.  (Here is a video of how to use it if you’re not sure what I’m talking about.) 
    • On a side note, this add-on is amazing because now you have a Google doc for each student that can be shared easily with other teachers working with the student or parents.  It’s great for conferring notes as well. 🙂
  • As I was walking around and talking to students use my phone to use the form to quickly jot down notes.

Idea #2

  • Create a chart for each student using Google docs like this one.  
  • Print out each of these sheets and keep them in binder.  Create a new sheet for each student per week. (Or if you’re not a fan of paper, you could also do something similar with a folder for each student, but this might be difficult to manage as you are walking around throughout the day.)
  • Keep the binder with me throughout the day.  As I am noticing strengths, ideas etc. about students jot down a quick note in their tab. 

Benefits of Individual Data:  Great for looking at students as a whole.  Also easy to share with students, parents and other staff members because your forms are per individual student.  

Drawbacks of Individual Data:  When planning for groups or looking for patterns based on the information you have collected you may be doing a lot of flipping back and forth or scrolling to find commonalities.  This can be more time consuming.  However, if you use Idea #1 Google forms will allow you to sort the spreadsheet that the form creates which solves this problem.

Group

Sometimes I found keeping individual data overwhelming and found it easier to keep track of the entire class at one time.   When taking this approach you are having the descriptors at the top of the chart while the student names go down the side of the chart.  Here is an example of what I mean by keeping track of the class’ strengths.   One of the reasons that I like this chart is the ability to write down goals for students directly in the chart so that they are all in one place. (The student can formulate these goals as well)  This makes it easy when you are reflecting at the end of the week for next steps for the following week.

Another way you might do this is by using an old plan book and assigning student names to each box.  You can then use post-its to take notes through-out the week and stick them to the boxes.   

Benefits of Group Data:  All of your data is in one place.  It is easy to create groups and see overall how your class is doing.  You can make plans for next steps without having to look back and forth at individual students.  

Drawbacks of Individual Data:  It takes an extra step to share this data with individuals because you will have to transfer the information to individual forms.  It’s not as easy to see individual progress from week to to week as it is with individual data.

When deciding how to collect your learner data think about your personal preference for collection as well as your purpose.  I would recommend starting small.  Select one type of data you wish to collect and try out different methodologies until you find one that works best for you.  You can then transfer that protocol to the other information you are keeping on your students.  

R-E-F-L-E-C-T

Even if you find the ultimate way to collect information on your students there will never be any impact if you don’t take the time to analyze and reflect upon this data.  You might find that reflecting at the end of each day is better for you or perhaps weekly is more preferable.  Again, it’s your preference, there is no perfect methodology.  Here are some questions to consider when you are reflecting each week.

  1. What are patterns I am noticing in my classroom? (passions, interests, strengths, abilities that need strengthening)’
  2. Who stood out as a leader? Who struggled?  What is my plan for celebrating or intervening?
  3. What lessons should I plan based on this information?  
  4. What groupings or partnerships might I plan as a result of the patterns I am noticing? Who might work together best?  

If you are a fan of forms, here is a Google doc with these questions that you can use in your reflection.  Another simple way to reflect is to create a daily list of 3 accomplishments that you would like to achieve by the end of the day based on the observations and patterns you are seeing.  This could be individual or as a class.

It is powerful to share your reflections with students or to even do the reflecting side by side with the student.  Share with them what you have observed and create goals together.  By involving them in the process and citing specifically their talents or skills they need to work on you are empowering them to own the next steps.  


Recognizing and developing strengths, passions and talents in our students is not something new or revolutionary to education.  It’s what we do with this knowledge that makes the difference, positively affecting students and creating innovation in our schools.  Approaching the classroom as a coach creates a deeper understanding and connection to students because you are purposefully connecting with each student daily and reflecting upon, not what EVERY student should know and be able to do, but what is best for the individual learners.  This creates a classroom culture where students are energized to build on their strengths and empowered to learn in ways they may have thought previously was beyond their grasp.  

Part 2 of this series will be focused on the next step:  instructional practices.  I look forward to hearing your feedback!  Christina

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taking the Time to Be the Difference

If you were to ask me why I got into education I would tell you a simple fact:

I LOVE working with students.  

Seeing their eyes light up when they learn something new.  

Building on their strengths.  

Showing them they can achieve ANYTHING.

Except when I really think about it, I don’t know that ALL of the students I have worked with throughout my career would agree with this description.  The “troublemakers.”  The ones who didn’t fit into my image of what a great student should be.  The ones who talked out of turn too much or didn’t follow the directions or appeared to be completely unmotivated in my class.  What would they say?

Would they agree…

I knew their strengths?

I valued their unique talents?

I BELIEVED IN THEM?

I don’t know.  Some would, but sadly I am pretty sure there are more than a few that would not. 

My short response when they asked a question I had already given the answer to.  The tone in my voice when I told them for what felt like the 800th time to stop interrupting.  The phone calls home to share my concerns of what they were NOT able to do in my classroom.  Classroom interactions focused on my disappointment in their behavior, getting started on work, missing assignments and how if they didn’t change there was not way they could ever be successful in school and beyond.  

Without intending it, these actions told them more than my actual words ever would. 

You are a nuisance.

Your faults are what define you.

I do not value you.

This was incredibly hard for me to reflect on, but I know it’s true.  The worst part is I could have fixed it.  

The Seeds We Sow and the Mark We Leave

When I became an assistant principal one of the things I greatly feared was that my role would primarily be of behavior interventionist.  I had visions of unending days in my office scolding naughty kids, dealing with upset parents and frustrating teachers if I couldn’t fix the problem child in their classroom.  I was pretty terrified.

So I was incredibly grateful last year when I found my role to be more of instructional leader and culture builder than an enforcer of compliance and behavior.  

But then something amazing happened.  I started having more opportunities to work with students who had behavior issues in school.  And it has literally become one of my favorite parts of my job.

Why?  

Simple reason.  We talk.  About anything they want. 

Cars.  Unicorns.  The history of the Ukelele.  How they hate math. Love their brother.  Hate their sister.  Mastering the floss.  Youtube.

I get to know them.  Their strengths.  Their passions.  Their unique qualities.  They teach me stuff.  I teach them stuff.  (Sometimes without them knowing it) 

And yes, we reflect.  We talk about what happened.  Why it happened.  What they will do differently next time.  Why it might be hard to avoid doing whatever it is they did next time, but how they will still vigilantly work to learn from their mistake.  

Instead of seeing them as someone who is disrupting my busy day I see them as a gift.  An opportunity for me to connect.  To Learn.  To Pause.  To help a kid see that even if they made a mistake they are still special, unique, and talented.  School is a good place for them.  They belong here.  They are loved. 

They are not a problem to fix, but an untapped talent with a potential for greatness.  

A Thought

When I was a classroom teacher there were so many pressures and demands of the job that made me feel like I didn’t always have the time it would require to build relationships with my most troubled students.  If we didn’t get through every part of the curriculum each day I was somehow failing as a teacher. 

We tell ourselves things like, If I don’t get through Unit 12 Lesson 9 in math by the end of the year something terrible is going to happen. This students’ behavior isn’t fair to the other kids.  It’s taking away their opportunity to learn.  It sets a bad example.  I need to DO something about it quickly or somehow this behavior will spread like a T Swift album.

I would argue with you the opposite is true.  If we don’t get students to see their unique talents and abilities then we have failed them.  If we don’t make school a place where kids feel connected, develop their passions and leave with a sense of drive and purpose then we are failing society.

Taking the extra time that it may require to build a relationship with a struggling student will actually take up less time in the long run because you will have an advocate in your classroom as opposed to an adversary.   

If you are still struggling with finding the time, I would recommend trying the 2X10 strategy.  I read about it in an ASCD article a few years ago and it has helped many of the teachers I have worked with to build better relationships.  Every day for ten days you take two minutes to share something personal about yourself with that student.  Many times when we ask our troubled students things about themselves they come back with crickets or very little information.  This strategy helps to overcome that barrier and the student starts to see connections with you which opens them up to share more about themselves.  It helps them to see you as a human being as well and not just the daily source of their frustration.  

I promise.  It’s worth it.


One of the reasons I felt so compelled to share this story this week was because of a new book I started reading by Dr. Brad Gustafson called Reclaiming our Calling:  Hold on to the Heart, Mind, and Hope of Education.  The foreward is actually written by a student who discovered his passion for drawing in Kindergarten.  This talent continued to be fostered throughout his elementary career by everyone in the school to the point where he has connected with published authors and is inspiring others and making a true difference.  His talent for artwork could have been seen as a nuisance or something to be put on the back burner for the curriculum, but it wasn’t. Now this middle schooler is inspiring others and making a difference.  Not gonna lie.  This story brought me to tears.

Let’s make stories like this one the norm as opposed to the exception in school.

Take the time. 

Build relationships.

Discover strengths.

Be the difference.

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Thanks for reading.  Christina

When You’ve Had One Too Many Google Slides

My Post (6)Audio version of this post.

Email at 9:30 p.m. Sunday night.  Tomorrow school is cancelled due to inclement weather.  (Cue the cheering)

Email at 9:45 p.m.  All admin must still report to fulfill their contractual obligation. (Cue the booing)

Not gonna lie.  That last email didn’t exactly make my night, BUT it did lead to an amazing meeting Monday.  So, one might argue that the 9:45 email was actually better than the 9:30 one.  Let me explain.

When I got to school I sent an email to my staff saying I was available if anyone needed anything.  About 20 minutes later I received a response from a teacher asking if I would like to meet.  We had been trying to officially talk for weeks about an idea she had, but up until this point it was all hallway conversations here and there.  Turns out her power was out so this was a great opportunity for us to actually create a plan as well as a warm place to be.  Win. Win.

The teacher was planning out a social science inquiry unit about the Age of Exploration.  Her problem was twofold:

  1.  She frequently offered her students choice in how they would demonstrate their learning, but they ALWAYS seemed to use Google slides.
  2. Finding good resources for the students to explore in the Hyperdoc she was creating was super time consuming.

Enter two of my favorite things:  Curation & Meaningful Content.   I learned about curation when listening to a podcast from Jennifer Gonzalez’ Cult of Pedagogy website when I was an instructional coach.  (Sidenote: If you do not listen to her podcasts or at least check out her website periodically you are missing out on a WEALTH of tools, strategies, and just plain good stuff.)

There are many different ways to approach it, but basically curation is taking the concept of a museum curator and giving it a classroom context.   Students might create a playlist of videos that are all relevant to a topic they are studying, make a list of articles, images, and videos that answer a question or even a create Top 10 list.  The idea is that they are sifting through a wide range of information and choosing the best items to fit.  In addition to giving them a purpose for watching and reading numerous content, it also causes them to have to apply critical thinking skills such as determining importance and synthesis.  Check out her post for many more ideas for curation applications.

Curation fit perfectly into the explorer unit.  Students are first going to create their own question under the larger umbrella question of, “Is exploration always a good thing?”  After reading and watching a few common texts and videos, the students will next be tasked with curating their own list of videos, texts and images that answer their personal question.  The only requirement is that each resource on the list must be summarized with reasons for why it is included.  These curations will then be reviewed by their peers (creating even more shared ideas) and inevitably be used in future years as well.  Genius.

Books Make a Great Foundation, But…

Which led us to our our next dilemma.  What kinds of resources did we really want students going through?  Where would we start?  When we first started chatting it was suggested that we take the students to the public library to find texts to use as their primary sources.  Although I am a super fan of the library and will always believe in the power of a physical book, I thought we should also ponder digital content like YouTube, Blogs, and websites.  This would give them an opportunity to explore media resources that they were already regularly consuming outside of school, but with a critical lens.

As I brought this idea up to the teacher she said she loved it, but wasn’t sure where to find blogs that would be useful.  She had a few websites that she liked and a couple of videos, but hadn’t seen much else.  I did a quick search of,Social Studies Blogsand found a treasure of resources created by history teachers for other teachers to use with students.  (#sschat on Twitter is also a great place to look) I assured her that the beauty of curation was that we didn’t have to be the sole experts finding resources, it was up to the students.  My guess was that they would surprise us with what they knew or were able to find.  Just in case though we planned to make a list of a few good blogs and websites as well as some YouTube channels. (Crash Course Kids is one of my fave’s.)

Slide to the Left…Slide to the Right…

All of this curation led us back to problem number one:  What were the students going to do with all of this knowledge that they had curated and synthesized?  Although this teacher had offered choice in a variety of other units most students defaulted to the ever popular Google slides presentation.  It’s not that Google slides aren’t a good way to present information, but if students are always demonstrating their learning in the exact same way are we really helping them to be prepared to contribute to the world outside of school?

Knowing that with their friends they spend a lot of time on YouTube we decided to start there.  Students would come to class prepared to talk about their favorite YouTube videos that they have learned something from.  They would present their videos in small groups and work to answer the question, “What makes a good presentation?” From this small group discussion the students will create a list as a class of qualities that make a presentation engaging as well as informational.  These qualities will become what the students use to assess themselves on their work.

After this class collaboration the students would then get to work in stations to learn about some other options they could use to answer their individual questions including:

  • Adobe Spark – Students can use this to create videos with narration, creative graphics or scrolling webpages.  It’s a pretty intuitive site if you have not used it previously.  
  • WeVideoThis is an online platform for creating videos.  I have to give a huge shout out to Jennifer Leban (@mrsleban), our creative technology teacher at one of our middle schools for teaching me how to use this super fun tool! (I have a future post dedicated to my learning with this one coming soon!)
  • SeesawThis is a great tool for student creation, reflection, and collaboration.  It can be used in so many different ways.  One of the best parts is that it is easy to share with parents.  

Students still have the option to use Google slides for their presentations. They just need to make sure that they meet the requirements that the class had come up with together.  By doing this it will hopefully shift their presentations into more complex and engaging content as opposed to just bullet points and fun transitions with a few graphics.  Or, they don’t have to use technology at all if they don’t want to.  They have the option to create their own idea or use one from their teacher’s list like creating a book or a live interview.  

This entire plan is designed to spark not only curiosity, but to also develop four of the six C’s of creativity, collaboration, communication and critical thinking. The teacher plans on using reading, writing, science and social studies as part of the interdisciplinary unit giving students an opportunity to see education as a connected process as opposed to independent ideas.  After the students learn about historical exploration they are also going to be learning about space exploration to ponder how we can use the past to help us to understand or better create the future.


The two problems discussed in this post are not unique to the teacher I was speaking with.  As a teacher and a coach I would sometimes spend hours on end looking for the best resources to use with students.  This process would many times leave me frustrated blaming “the district” for not providing me with everything I need.   However, when I reflect on what skills students truly need to be successful in school and beyond I think we are doing a disservice to students if we are always the ones providing them with the content they should be reading.  We need to teach them not only how to find information that answers their bigger questions, but also how to evaluate the quality and validity of the information they find. 

I truly applaud this teacher for reflecting on the needs of her students and taking the risk of trying something new with a unit that could easily be taught in a very traditional way.  Moving forward she will be working mostly with our instructional coach, but it was such a treat to have time to talk this out with her on Monday.  I cannot wait to see the creative ideas and projects that evolve as a result!  #greatfulforasnowday

What Defines Us

Audio version of this post:

“Why would you want to be like anyone else?”

Trying to figure out how many times I have been asked this question would be like attempting to count the number of shoes in a Kardashian closet.  More than a hypothetical question meant to ward off bad behavior, if you grew up in my house, it was a mantra, an embodiment, the law.  

My parents didn’t just preach this question, they lived it.  When my mom was a young adult she wanted to see the world, so instead of booking a trip she auditioned for a christian music group, recorded an album and went on a world tour.  As I was growing up she was on pretty much every board in town and was constantly in the paper for the innovative work that she did. 

One of my favorite stories though is how my mother convinced a large organization to hire her as a prevention specialist with absolutely zero experience after staying home for 10 years.  How did she do it? She first decided to call her local state official, arranged a meeting, and got them to recommend her for the position (after only seeing her once). At the actual job interview they told her they would hire her over the other candidates, but she had never written any grants, a large part of the position. So, she left the interview, went immediately to the library, checked out every book she could, wrote a 20 page proposal, sent it to them, and was hired the next day.  I could honestly go on for hours about how, throughout my life, my mother has taught me the value of doing things that may be inconceivable to others.

From my dad I learned this same value, but in a different context.  A devout christian (we called him Mr. Holy Man growing up), all of his decisions and interactions with people are made based off of the scriptures in the Bible. Instead of spending his life pursuing his greatest dreams, he has dedicated it to supporting others.  I have watched him over the years devote his time to connecting with people, giving his time even when he doesn’t have it and living a life of gratitude and reflection regardless what is happening around him.  An avid reader of a variety of genres, he believes in his convictions and finds ways in any interaction to teach a lesson, encourage growth or offer support. It is rare that I have met anyone who rivals him in convictions, knowledge and servitude.

A Personal Reflection

This simple family belief has had a profound effect on me throughout my life, but especially as an educator.   When I was in the classroom I dreamed big and often altered the curriculum in favor of more meaningful learning experiences for my students.   I didn’t do this for the sake of being different, but because I wanted to plan learning activities that would truly engage all of my learners.  By my last year in the classroom, this meant more opportunities for students to drive their own learning through goal setting, reflection and feedback.   The students held book clubs and blogged about their books, planned out fundraisers, participated in back channel discussions, produced math and reading videos and owned their learning because they chose the activities to meet the weekly goals.  (Click here for example)  

I welcome risk and crave new experiences.  As a result I see change as a positive.  In my almost 20 years in education I have accepted tenure only once, not because it wasn’t offered, but because I have always had a desire to learn and grow.   Every 3-4 years I have left my current job to work in places that I knew would push my thinking.  In 2012, I left THE BEST team I have ever been on to become an instructional coach in Naperville because I was inspired by the amazing work I had heard the teachers were doing with students there.

On the flip side, I truly struggle when I am told that there is only one right way of teaching or I must do something exactly as described.  Telling me to “teach with fidelity” is the equivalent of the friendly finger in my book.  I am not saying that I don’t believe in following rules or that I don’t follow a policy when it has been agreed upon, but when a stringent approach is being made my gut reaction is to question it first.  Simply based on the fact that students are all unique, how on earth could one way be the right way to teach ALL students?

How Our Perceptions Influence Us

According to Ambrose (1987), meaningful change will occur if the following are present.

Vision+Skills+Incentives+Resources+Action Plan+Results 

If any of the components are missing then a variety of negative outcomes will result instead including anxiety, confusion, resistance, frustration, false starts and inertia.  I completely agree with this assertion, but I would also argue that considering people’s prior experiences and perceptions is another factor that needs to be a part of the equation.

Perhaps naively, when I became a coach I thought everyone had the same viewpoints as I did.   I thought that by simply providing enough background and sharing new ideas with a detailed plan that everyone would want to jump in and start whatever initiative I was introducing.  Although there were definitely people who were like me and jumped in right away, there were many others who responded differently.  Some people I found just needed more information than I had provided, some needed to “see it” first in action, some implemented slowly and others appeared to be completely uninterested.  

The more I got to know my colleagues, the more I saw how people’s prior experiences, backgrounds and beliefs influenced how they would perceive the work we would do together.  Combining this with what I learned about their strengths and passions I was able to much better tailor the learning to what my staff needed resulting in greater ownership and meaningful change.  For staff members in which change created anxiety, I made sure I incorporated connections to how the new initiative was similar to strategies or approaches they had previously experienced.  For educators who valued individuality I looked to include opportunities to personalize the new initiative and tailor it to what made it meaningful to them.

Students come to the classroom with past experiences and dispositions that affect the way they receive new learning as well.  Charlotte Danielson advocates seeking out information on students’ “backgrounds, cultures, skills, language proficiency, interests, and special needs” and incorporating this information into planning learning experiences.  Many educators interpret this part of Domain 1 as knowing information about the culture or ethnicity of the student.  If we are going to reach every child, we have to go further than looking at generic stereotypes of ethnicity or background and delve deeper into the beliefs that a student has developed during their individual upbringing.  

Three Little Questions

So how do we learn this critical information about those we teach, lead or work with?  For me, it starts with finding out the answers to the following questions:

  1. What does your family believe is most important? (For students, what is a lesson your parents have tried to teach you a lot? OR What do you think your parents think is the most important thing in life?)
  2. What do you value most?
  3. What can I learn from you?

Gaining the answers to these questions can be done in a variety of ways.  I personally prefer individual conversations, but I know that is not always realistic.  Having teams discuss these questions at a staff meeting or PLC is a great way to build upon a positive culture in the school.  It is amazing to see the connections that people make as they share ideas or values that are meaningful to them.   When staff members know the strengths of their peers, it grows the dynamic of a collaborative environment where everyone has a chance to shine and learn from one another.

In the classroom structures like genius hour or passion projects are a great way to bring out the interests and values of the kids.  Giving students opportunities to be the expert and teach the class is another way to highlight and build upon their strengths.  Learners could also create projects answering one or more of these questions or simply journal about them or discuss them in small groups.   As with adults, there is also great power in having 1:1 conversations with students about these questions as well.


In his insanely popular book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey addresses perceptions and the impact they have on the way we view the world.  His position is that if we acknowledge and analyze them, then we can have a much more open-minded and objective view.  I believe that when we know the values and beliefs of those around us, including our own, we can better build upon strengths and create learning experiences that are meaningful and powerful for all stakeholders.  

I would love to know your thoughts and what you have done to learn the values, strengths, and passions of others.

Christina

A Good Question Can Solve Any Problem

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Audio version of this post.

Judge a Man By His Questions Rather Than By His Answers

Seven years ago I would have seriously struggled with this quote.  Coming out of the classroom into the role of an instructional coach, I thought my sole purpose was to solve any problem that was brought my way.  In some ways this perception was accurate. When I first started at Mill St., a big part of my focus in building relationships was finding out what my staff needed and being the solution to whatever that was.  This built both trust and credibility, but as I would later learn, was not the most impactful way to be a coach.

I’ll never forget my first 1:1 meeting with Melissa Hampton, Director of Professional Learning.  She had come to visit my building to find out how coaching was going and what she could do to support me.  I was so excited to share with her all of the work I had been doing with staff members on everything from learning targets to reading and math workshop.  She too shared my enthusiasm, but then asked me a simple question that has impacted my practice to this day, “What do you think would happen if you were no longer here at Mill?  Would the instructional practices continue?”  I paused for a minute, thought about it, and honestly wasn’t sure.  I knew I had done a good job of modeling, providing resources and coming up with ideas, but what I realized in my earnestness for solving problems was that I was leaving teachers out of the most important part of the process, the thinking behind the planning and creating.

Melissa continued the conversation with me, letting me share my thoughts, pausing (for sometimes what felt like an eternity), and asking questions that moved my thinking forward.  She never once told me, “this is what I would do” unless I asked explicitly for her opinion.  By the end of the meeting I had many ideas and plans for how I would move forward with my coaching that I was genuinely excited about.  She was clearly a wealth of knowledge, but never made me feel like I wasn’t capable.  In short, she had empowered me to reach my own goals.

Long after Melissa left I continued to think about what coaching moves she used and how I could get better at building the capacity of those whom I served.  I realized that what impacted me most were the questions that she asked.  Open-ended and reflective, she genuinely just seemed curious about me and my thoughts.   As a result, I started working daily to improve in my ability to ask meaningful and reflective questions.  The first time I heard someone say, “you ask really good questions” was truly one of the best compliments I had ever received.  By the end of my coaching tenure, I left feeling like the work would last, not because of my expertise, but because through thoughtful questioning & reflection, I helped build upon the talent that already existed within my staff.

Asking Meaningful Questions

A few months into the new school year, I have started thinking again about the art of asking questions, a skill that is often touted as important, but seldom developed as the complex process that it really is.  My ability to ask good questions has really come down to four things:

  • Committed Listening
  • Curiosity
  • Believing the answer is in the room
  • Practice, Practice, Practice

Committed Listening

First, the obvious.  It is nearly impossible to ask a good question if you haven’t been listening.  At my first coaching training with the fabulous Cindy Harrison back in 2012, I learned about something called, “Committed Listening.” (Not to be confused with Active Listening which I will forever associate with this episode from Everybody Loves Raymond) I’m not sure where it came from, but basically you are listening without:

  1. Thinking about what you will say back
  2. Finding fault
  3. Piggybacking
  4. Formulating a piece of advice
  5. Giving a solution

My experience is that people have a tendency towards one of these when they are in a conversation.  For example, my mother is a notorious “Piggybacker” or “One Upper,” if you are an SNL fan.  Every time I share a story with her she has to tell me something related that happened to her.  These connections usually starting with the phrase, “If you think that’s bad, listen to what happened to me,” or “I know exactly how you feel” followed by a lengthy story.  The person you’re talking to assumes that it’s making you feel better by commiserating, but often it just makes the other person feel like you weren’t listening. (And you weren’t right? You were formulating your own story as the person was talking.) You probably could have guessed this from my prior story, but numbers 4 and 5 have been my personal struggle.

So how do you move forward if you know you struggle with one or more of these?  The first step is recognizing that you have a problem.  (Thanks AA)  Now that you are aware that you have a problem, you can recognize when your habit is creeping up and direct your mind back to the person talking.  A strategy that helped me as a coach with this was taking notes while the person was talking.  It was impossible for my mind to both type on the computer and also formulate a piece of advice or solution.  Whatever strategy you use it is going to take practice.  It’s okay to have setbacks, but keep reminding yourself that in the long run being a better listener leads to better questions which leads to increased ownership of the solution.

Curiosity 

In his book Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It, Ian Leslie makes the argument that curiosity creates more insight and innovation, but thanks to the information rich world we now live in, people are losing their ability to ask good questions.  Further, he posits if we more regularly flex our curiosity muscles we become more empathetic towards others resulting in a positive effect on society as a whole.

When I stopped thinking about how I would respond or formulating solutions while the other person was talking, it opened up my mind to be genuinely curious about what the other person was saying.  I started picking up on little details that in the past I would have missed due to the internal dialogue happening in my head.  My ability to ask better questions improved immensely because I was fully present in the conversation.

A great example of this is a conversation I had with a teacher about a boy in her classroom who was frequently misbehaving.  From first glance it appeared that he simply didn’t care about school.  He didn’t want to do the work, and would run out of the room often with other staff members chasing him down. This happened most frequently at the start of each day.  As the teacher told me stories about how he would spend the day disrupting the class I felt her frustration.  It was curious because he was only in first grade and appeared to already despise school.

Instead of coming up with some sort of behavior modification plan, I started asking her what she knew about him.  What were his strengths?  What was important to him?  Was there anything missing that we might not be considering?  The more we talked I could see the wheels turning in this teacher’s mind.  She started sharing that this little boy was very close to his mom.  He had a difficult home life and coming to school was a sense of comfort, but also anxiety because he was missing feeling that connection.  What she decided to do was giving him extra positive attention and share things with him about herself that he could connect to like superheroes and her family.   He loved spelling so that became his first activity of the day.  The change in this little boy was huge.  I’m not going to say he became a perfect angel, but the disruptive behaviors dramatically lessened and he started demonstrating a desire for leadership in her classroom.

The Answer is Always in the Room

“The answer is always in the room” is a classic coaching tenet.  What it really means is that you completely believe in the strengths and talents of everyone around you.  Because of this, you know that both you and the person you are working with are fully capable of coming up with a solution to any problem or puzzle that arises.

The implication for this belief is that it increases both the rigor and tenacity of the questions being asked in the conversation.  More open-ended questions are offered, because with enough reflection, I know we will be able to come up with a solution to whatever we are pondering together.  Additionally, if we reach an impasse, I will continue to probe for more information or ask questions in a different way until we come up with a plan that we both believe in.

In retrospect, I wish I would have approached my students with this philosophy when I was a classroom teacher, particularly my struggling students. Instead of telling them what to do when I saw them get stuck, I could have thought about a question that would have gotten them to find the solution themselves.  I thought by rescuing them I was doing my job, but I now realize what I was really doing was enabling them to always depend on me.

It’s not always easy to do in the moment though.  When I’ve worked with teachers on this issue, we first examine the learning target and talk about what we want students to get out of the lesson.  Next we brainstorm what students might struggle with.  Finally, we create a list of 2-4 questions that the teacher can ask to help a student to get themselves unstuck.  Sometimes, as we went through this reflective process we even ended up devising better ways to teach the students during the lesson, which prevented the struggle in the first place. 🙂

Practice, Practice, Practice

The biggest piece of advice I can give about asking questions is that you simply need to practice.  When I was a coach we met every Friday and got to practice skills related to coaching in a “critical friends” group.  Besides practicing daily with the conversations I was having with teachers, this was the best because I actually had someone listening and giving me feedback on my process.  It helped me to create goals for myself and refine my practice.

Another helpful way to improve is to videotape yourself teaching or talking with a staff member.  Once you’ve gotten past the excruciating experience of watching yourself on video (so hard to not nitpick every little thing), it can be a very powerful way to look for patterns in the types of questions you are asking and the effect you see happening on the person/group you are speaking with.

Here are some things to ask yourself as you reflect:

  • (Pattern Seeking) Am I asking more open-ended or closed questions?  What is the ratio of questions that probe for more information vs. move the learner forward for action vs. result in reflection?
  • (Positive Presuppositions)  How am I phrasing my questions in a way that show the other person I believe in their capacity and ability?  (For example:  As you examine the student work, what are some of your findings? vs. Did you look at the student work? Click here for more examples.)
  • (Type of Questions & Impact)  What questions am I asking that seem to have the greatest impact on the other person’s ability to:
    • Create their own solutions
    • Move forward to action
    • Reflect
    • Delve deeper
    • Come back to the target if the conversation gets off task

A Change in Perspective

The other day I was having a conversation with the instructional coach in one of my buildings about some ideas that she had.   As we were finishing our talk she said, “Christina you ask really good questions.  People should call you the Questionnaire Extroardinnaire.”  I smiled, thanked her for the compliment and felt genuine gratitude for what seemed like my own “Melissa Hampton” moment.

For most of my life I believed my greatest asset was my intellect and ability to create solutions.  Although these are both strengths to be valued, I would much rather be known as someone who asks great questions and builds the strengths and capacity of others.  If we are going to create learning environments where impactful and innovative practices flourish, as opposed to new fads that die with the next leader, we need to make sure that the ability to ask good questions is cultivated in every learner in the school.

The Coaching Effect

Here goes.  My first confession.  I’m biased.

Now I suppose you might be thinking this is kind of odd since coaches are known for their extreme open-mindedness, but we are also known for being pretty honest and transparent.  So, if we’re going to go on this journey together then I feel the need to let you know up front a part of my educator soul that cannot be swayed.

I have 100% Tom Cruise Jumping on a Couch Level unreasonable bias about one thing in education: instructional coaching. (Cue the shock & awe effects) I believe that not only does everyone need a coach, that everyone in education would benefit from BEING a coach.

The research alone makes a strong argument.  A recent meta analysis of 60 studies on coaching in schools by Matthew Kraft and David Blazar found that instructional coaching can improve teacher’s practice and student achievement by as much as a decade of experience. (For the full article in Education Next click here.)  

But that’s not the reason I’m so passionate about coaching.  Truthfully, the main reason stems from personal experience. The five years I spent as a coach were the most impactful of my entire career. I grew more as a teacher, learner, and pretty much overall human being in those five years than I ever did in my 13 previous years as an educator.  

Why?  It comes down to 12 foundational tenets that I learned at the beginning of my coaching career and continued to practice, reflect upon and refine. (For additional thoughts on these ideas click here.)

  1. TRUST
  2. Questioning
  3. Feedback
  4. Reflection
  5. Learner-Driven
  6. Strength-Focused
  7. Clear Communicator
  8. Risk Taker
  9. Passionate Learner
  10. Creative
  11. Knowledgeable, but Open-Minded
  12. Emotional Intelligence

All of these principles point to the ultimate goal of a coach which is to build the capacity of others.  When I first became an administrator I viewed these skills as an asset that would help me to be a good leader. However, reflecting upon the experiences I have had as an educator, I have come to the realization that building these skills would benefit not just school leadership, but all stakeholders.

According to the International Center for Leadership, the Top 10 Skills that employers are looking for in employees are:

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If we are going to empower students throughout their school experience to embody these skills then we need to explore different instructional approaches that focus less on what the teacher has to offer and more on how to develop the unique strengths and talents of everyone.  

Everyone in education should BE a coach.

Throughout this blog I plan on further developing and reflecting upon this premise. I will be sharing stories, examples and resources from my experience as a coach, teacher, administrator and student. Depending on where you are at in your educational journey my hope is that you find something that you can connect to.  Some of the questions I am currently pondering are:

What would happen if we approached all facets of education through the lens of a coach?  

What does a coaching approach to schools look like in practice?

How might this approach impact the type of learner that we develop in our schools?  

How might this impact our world now and in the future?

Although I am insanely biased about instructional coaching, I truly believe in the power of growth through feedback and listening to other perspectives. I look forward to hearing your ideas and wonderings.  

Christina