Sunday, April 26, 2015

Coaching action teachers

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post where I started to link what I know about Cognitive Coaching with what I've been reading about the different stages teachers may be at for coaching.  Today I want to think about what Hall and Simeral write about teachers at the action stage.   These teachers have recognized a problem of practice around student learning and have decided to tackle it.  They know they are responsible for their own personal growth and welcome ideas and support from a coach and want to "walk the talk".  They are responsible, motivated, approachable and committed to positive change, but they are unsure of exactly how to move forward.  These teachers can evaluate their classroom situation objectively as they are engaged in formative assessments that are giving them data about student learning.  They are also well aware of research about best-practice and engage in various forms of PD such as attending workshops and reading books.  Hall and Simeral note that these teachers reflect on their teaching only after taking action, which makes them more reactive than proactive.  Often, when they find a strategy that seems to work well, they believe that is only one way of doing things, and reject the idea that different approaches can also be effective (low flexibility).

As well as this, action teachers often struggle with long-term problems and with students who don't respond to the strategies they are trying.  This can indicate a narrow understanding of the big picture. They collaborate with colleagues on a limited basis, as their focus is mostly on improving themselves.   These teachers do accept feedback in a positive way, but Hall and Simeral point out that this can then lead them into a critical loop - as they start to improve they feel others should also be taking these new ideas onboard.  They want to collaborate more, but have difficulty seeing things from others' points of view (low interdependence and flexibility).

Efficacy, craftsmanship and consciousness, however can be reasonably high.  Action teachers are focused on the science of teaching as they want to learn and implement best practices in order to improve student learning.  They regularly assess students and evaluate what they need to change to increase student achievement and make changes in the best interests of their students.  They link their lessons to standards and have objectives and learning targets for each lesson.

Coaching an action teacher calls on the coach being able to help teachers build on their positive experiences.  A coach might start out validating the teacher's ideas and decisions by asking questions about craftsmanship or consciousness, for example  "What are some of the things you did that made it go so well?", "What were some of the criteria you used to ..."or "How did you make decisions about ....?"  Hall and Simeral write that action teachers are "eager for new ideas and will readily try what you suggest.  But at the same time it is essential that you gradually release responsibility for the learning and focus the majority of your coaching on building necessary critical thinking and discernment skills ... Engage them in the process of diagnosing problems, researching solutions and creating action plans to develop competence and discernment, which are essential reflective characteristics."  Other ideas for coaching the action teacher include:

  • Small group discussions, professional book clubs and PLCs - teachers at the action stage will benefit the most from learning teams (strengthening interdependence).
  • Using the apprenticeship model - working along side a teacher using a coteaching structure.
  • Classroom observations - and feedback that supports thinking - this is the only stage so far that Hall and Simeral recommend observations and there is always the danger that these might be seen as stepping out of the coaching role and into that of an evaluator.  
  • Video and analyze performance together (strengthening craftsmanship)
  • Collegial observations (strengthening interdependence)
  • Reflective questioning - open ended questions will promote critical thinking and nurture independence. (strengthening craftsmanship and efficacy)
  • Attending workshops with the teacher and sharing learning - it's best to attend together as reflection is more effective when 2 people share the same experience.  
  • Analyzing student data
  • Recognizing emerging expertise as often as possible. It's also important to create opportunities for the teacher to share his/her learning with others at school (strengthening efficacy).  At ASB we have encouraged teachers and teaching assistants to present at tech training sessions after school to share their learning from the Google Summits, for example, and have involved teachers in PlayDates and SpeedGeeking sessions.
In my experience action teachers are a delight to work with, and a coach can really quickly feel that there is an impact on student learning.

Ideas in this blog post are from the book Building Teachers' Capacity for Success by Pete Hall and Alisa Simeral

Original artwork by an ASB student

Saturday, April 25, 2015

The oak and the willow

In my last post I wrote about the final activity at our New Teacher Institute.  In this one I want to briefly mention our first activity.  The first ice-breaker we did was to each choose a photo that said something about us.  We stood in a circle and introduced ourselves and why we had chosen that photo.  Coming late into the circle there were few photos for me to choose, so I quickly picked one up.  It was a photo of someone looking through a pair of glasses - you could see similar but slightly different images of the person in the lenses.

This reminded me of something that one of our new teachers said to me last year, after she'd been in Mumbai for around a month.  She said there are times when you have to be like an oak.  You have to have deep and strong roots, which are your values.  You have to ensure that you stay true to these as they support you through the storms.  Oaks live for hundreds of years and survive a lot.  At other times you need to be like a willow.  A willow is flexible and bends with the winds.  Bending also allows the willow to survive.  Her point was that at times you need to be like a willow too. Sometimes things are very different in Mumbai than where you came from.  You need to be flexible and to go with the flow.

The secret to making a success out of life in India is simply this:  you need know when you need to be an oak and when you need to be a willow.

3 quotes for 3 cohorts of newbies

This week I've been involved in what is one of my favourite tasks of the year - the New Teacher Institute.  Each year in April we bring all our new teachers to Mumbai for 3-4 days to introduce them to ASB and to India.  We always start off our institute with photos on the floor - a variety of different photos and people are asked to pick up the one that most speaks to them.  We stand around in a circle, introduce ourselves and talk about why the photo has meaning.  It's a great ice-breaker.  It introduces the rest of the cohort to who we all are as individuals.

At the end of the institute we do something similar - this time we have all bonded and we want our new teachers to feel part of something bigger than just themselves.  We start this activity with quotes on the floor and again each person gets to pick one that means something to him or her.  They can talk about this in small groups but eventually it gets whittled down to a small number of quotes and collectively the group votes on which one they want to take forward as their quote for the upcoming year.

This is the one that was chosen this year:


This quote really speaks to me too.  I love the way it ties in with our mission statement, where students are empowered to pursue their dreams and enhance the lives of others.

Just for the record here are the quotations from the last 2 years.
2014 - this cohort focused on the idea of collaboration and togetherness:


2013 - this cohort were keen to throw themselves into their new life in India - to learn, to grow, to change:


We have a fabulous group of new teachers joining us in July.  I'm looking forward to next year already!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Coaching the conscious teacher


The last few blog posts have been based on the book Building Teachers' Capacity for Success by Pete Hall and Alisa Simeral.  As I've been reading this book, I've been trying to see the similarities between what I am reading and the Cognitive Coaching training that I've done.  This post is about teachers who are aware of best-practice, but where there is a disconnect between what they know and what is actually happening in their classroom, largely because these teachers lack motivation to apply what they know and so make decisions based on their own needs rather than those of their students.

This is a tough one, because the conscious teacher does know the difference between what works well and what doesn't.  These teachers have engaged in PD and yet sometimes these teachers will cherry-pick their way through the research to find and cite only those studies that support what they are currently doing.  Too often these teachers will make the sort of "blame it on the rain" excuses, rather than taking responsibility for what is happening in the classroom.  They will tend to blame the students, parents, lack of support from admin or lack of resources to explain why their students are making little progress - so demonstrating low efficacy.

Conscious teachers are also often unable to correctly diagnose or evaluate what the problem is.  Often there is a quick and superficial look at it, and then a solution is chosen - which is usually going to be the easiest one.  Conscious teachers are also easily distracted from their goals.  As a coach, you won't have much of a problem getting these teachers to set a goal (they will choose quick and easy ones) but the problem will be follow through and accomplishment of these goals as they are low in craftsmanship and flexibility.

Conscious teachers also collaborate inconsistently with their colleagues.  They can be really social, but withdraw from relationships that hold them accountable for their practices or from conversations that might require deep thought.  They also tend to take a defensive stance towards others who may come up with different suggestions or ideas than their own.  In terms of their states of mind this shows low flexibility and low interdependence.

Seen from the lens of Cognitive Coaching, therefore, the conscious teacher seems vague and imprecise, with narrow, egocentric views leading to isolation and separateness from their colleagues.  These teachers have an external locus of control so don't often engage in problem-solving or action.  Instruction is designed for their own convenience and is often focused on short-term planning.  Frequently these teachers struggle to link assessment and instruction.  Students in these classes are often just sitting passively, listening to the teacher, or doing time-filler activities.  Lessons aren't engaging or rigorous and there is little differentiation going on on a regular basis.  Often the conscious teacher is drawn to new ideas, but lacks the commitment to carry these through.

Hall and Simeral's suggestions for a coach working with the conscious teacher are as follows:

  • Develop a detailed action plan - to ensure the goal will have an impact on student achievement so you could ask questions such as "What will you look for in student work that will let you know you have achieved this?" or "How might this relate to the objectives of your grade/team?"
  • Focus on short-term attainable goals that will have a long-term impact - the conscious teacher needs to feel a sense of working towards and achieving his/her goals.  For this you could ask about the approaches or strategies the teacher is undertaking, for example "What will you need to do to be best prepared for this?"
  • Provide support for instructional goals and best-practice strategies - often the teacher will need information such as assessment data to understand the need for change so that he/she will take action.  Collecting data can be an important role of the coach.  
In addition, since this teacher is likely to be low in interdependence, I would suggest asking questions such as "How might others in your subject/grade help you to achieve this?"

Hall and Simeral have 3 other suggestions:
  • Setting weekly collaborative planning meetings
  • Modeling specific techniques, followed by time for discussion
  • Designing meetings around a specific instructional topic - this will also tap into low interdependence because others in the grade/subject can provide questions, ideas or examples.
Both the unaware and the conscious teacher provide their own challenges for coaches, next we will look at teachers who are at the action and refinement stages and how they can be best supported by a coach.

Original artwork by an ASB student

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Coaching the unaware

One of the things that I've been doing as I've been reading Pete Hall and Alisa Simeral's book Building Teachers' Capacity for Success is to compare their approach to coaching with what I already know about Cognitive Coaching where the goal is to mediate thinking.  Since behaviour is produced by thought, Cognitive coaching aims to help teachers to be more self-directed, think of ways they can solve their own problems and to set challenging goals that will enhance their performance.  In Chapter 5 of their book, Hall and Simeral write about the "unaware" teacher who has little ability to accurately self-reflect and to identify what is and isn't working in the classroom.

In terms of Cognitive Coaching, the unaware teacher displays low consciousness about their actions and their effects.  In fact they are simply not aware that their instructional delivery isn't working or that some of their students don't understand.  Generally in these classrooms the teachers have the best intentions and may even believe that they are doing a good job, but the focus is on routines, following curriculum manuals, accomplishing tasks or doing what they have been directed to do by administrators rather than on student learning.  They frequently do not reflect about what is actually taking place in their classrooms or how they can play a role in addressing problems that some students face.  Quite often these teachers use a direct instruction approach of lecturing and assigning students work to cover the subject matter.  Lessons may lack a specific goal, or are not connected with standards, and there is little or no differentiation of instruction.  Partly this lack of differentiation is the result of having low consciousness - not only are they not aware of their own behaviours, they are also not aware of the differences in student readiness, so they are unable to maximize learning for all the students in their class by connecting their individual learning needs with effective teaching.

Reading through this description of the unaware teacher, it's clear that while consciousness is very low, other states of mind are also low.  Craftsmanship will also be low as teachers are not intentionally striving for improvement and efficacy may well be low because they are unable to make choices, solve problems and take action.  Flexibility is also almost certainly low, with few alternative strategies being considered nor the perspectives of the students taken into account.

So how can a coach work with an unaware teacher?  Hall and Simeral advocate working alongside these teachers to help them build awareness of better practices (consciousness and craftsmanship).  It is essential to build trust and rapport, and to be able to use these opportunities to model specific instructional strategies.  At this point, however, I feel the coach has moved out of the coaching role and has now taken on a collaborating role.

Hall and Simeral recommend identifying a specific problem to build awareness around, and then use it as a springboard for more self-reflection.  The Cognitive Coaching model does this through listening, paraphrasing and asking mediative questions that target specific states of mind.  These questions will be the "what" and "how" questions:  "how might you ...", "what might be some of the ways ....", "how did you make decisions about ..." or even "how does this compare with how you planned it?"  They will not be "why" questions which will tend to get a defensive reaction.

Some of the other strategies advocated by Hall and Simeral when coaching unaware teachers are:

  • administering personal belief and reflective questionnaires, since the more a teacher is aware of his or her personal beliefs the more the teacher will reflect on his or her role in the classroom
  • provide opportunities to observe in other classrooms
  • advocate journal keeping
  • facilitate opportunities to exchange ideas during guided meetings
The unaware teacher is certainly a challenge to a coach as there is a lack of understanding about why change is necessary.  The skill of a coach is therefore to help this teacher get from where he or she is now, to where he realizes he needs and wants to be somewhere else, and believes he has the capacity to learn something new in order to get there. 

Original artwork by an ASB student

Resisting change

Three years ago I did a middle level leadership workshop with Bambi Betts, after which I wrote this post about why some teachers resist change.  At the time the thoughts that were swirling around in my head were mostly about why some teachers resist technological change, but at the same time I was also struggling with the idea of why some entire schools resist change.  Bambi talked about 3 levels of resistance which I read about again recently in a book I'm reading about coaching.  In Building Teachers' Capacity for Success, Pete Hall and Alisa Simeral unpack these levels of resistance further.

Reluctance:  "I don't get it"
The reasons for teachers being reluctant to change can be any of the following:
  • Ambiguity - not being clear about the reasons for change
  • Poor communication - not understanding why change is necessary
  • Disagreement with the data - not believing the change will work
  • Poor timing - the teacher (or the school) is not ready to hear suggestions for change
Resistance:  "I don't like it"
Here the reasons for teachers to resist change are more complex:
  • Fear of failure - being afraid that an attempt to change will be unsuccessful
  • Fear of the unknown - the old ways are more comforting
  • Fear of inadequacy - that he or she does not have the necessary skills
  • Excessive pressure - from leaders and peers
  • Too much work - and too little reward for changing
  • Lack of ownership - the teacher is not involved in the planning
Defiance:  "I don't like you"
A lot of this is connected with deep seated and personal problems in the organization:
  • A climate of mistrust - in particular a lack of trust in the motives of the change agent
  • A lack of respect - linked with a low opinion of those behind the change
  • A personality conflict - the teacher cannot get along socially with those promoting change
  • Unfairness - a perception that the situation is unfair
Unpacking these reasons has been really helpful for me in my role as a coach.  I think if in future I'm faced with teachers who are resistant to change I need to ask myself what stage of resistance they are in.  Clearly there are different strategies for dealing with each of these - and what is effective in one situation may not be easily transferred to another.

Photo Credit: Jason Paluck via Compfight cc

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Self-reflection, states of mind and coaching

It's not the doing that matters, it's the thinking about the doing - John Dewey

Over the past few days I've been thinking about calling another meeting of our tech integration coaches to talk more about self-reflection.  Partly this comes as a result of working through the Reflecting into Planning Conversation at Days 5-8 of Cognitive Coaching, and partly it's because I'm facilitating an online workshop for the IB and this week one of the things we have focused on has been how we reflect on student learning, and then self-reflect on our reflections!  What we do know is that a teacher's ability to self-reflect has a direct impact on classroom effectiveness.

In the Reflecting into Planning Conversation we learned about how prompting a teacher to recall and summarize their impressions of a lesson, and then have them analyze what happened and why, is where new learning occurs.  Only at this point will a teacher be able to decide how they want to move forward and to clarify their goals and think about new approaches.

In the book Building Teachers' Capacity for Success, Pete Hall and Alisa Simeral write about a continuum of self-reflection.  They write that being able to identify what stage a teacher is in, will help a coach to determine the teacher's learning needs.  Here are the 4 stages they identify, along with the goals for a coach at each of these stages:

The Unaware Stage - teachers do not know or believe that their classroom can be any different. They have a limited understanding of their role in student learning.  These teachers may well be hard-working, but they see little gains in student achievement.  In this stage teachers need help to look beyond what they do and consider the impact they could have.  The goal of a coach is therefore to increase awareness of the need for change and to foster a desire to learn.  (Consciousness and Craftsmanship are both low)

The Conscious Stage - here there is a disconnect between a teacher's knowledge of best practice, and what is happening in the classroom.  Teachers know what they should be doing, but may lack the motivation to apply this knowledge.  These teachers often choose to do what is easiest for themselves, rather than what is best for their students.  In this stage there is the need for a coach to act as a motivator, to help the teacher set short-term goals and to provide the support to follow through.  The coach needs to ask questions about pedagogical knowledge and how it is being applied.  (Craftsmanship and Efficacy are both low, Interdependence and Flexibility are probably also fairly low)

The Action Stage - here teachers are motivated to change but may lack the knowledge of how to do it.  These teachers are open to advice and welcome constructive feedback.  They want to become better teachers and are prepared to work hard to develop their skills.  A coach can discuss different ways to approach issues and the goal is to build on experience and strengthen expertise.  (Craftsmanship and Flexibility are both low)

The Refinement Stage - teachers are competent and use formative and summative assessments to drive the instruction.  They are able to modify and refine their plans in response to students' needs and interests.  These teachers are best in situations where they can be innovative and creative. During the Reflecting Conversation the coach can provide the data that will help the teacher to self-reflect and analyze which strategies will work best for future planning.  The goal of the coach at this stage is to encourage long-term growth and continued reflection.  (Consciousness, Craftsmanship, Efficacy and Flexibility are all high)

Photo Credit: Alisha Vollkommer via Compfight cc