Saturday, March 31, 2018

I Answer 3 Questions I Often Ask Others

During the 2017-18 school year, I've definitely made a a conscientious choice to limit my online interactions. Simply put, my children are receiving my time and energy and that is what's most important to me (and them of course). That said, I feel I have learned a great deal this year in my role as an instructional coach, but haven't taken the time to share with you all. Here is a brief summary framed around three questions I often ask teachers about a lesson or task they did with their students:
• what successes did you have?
• what challenges did you have?
• what advice would you give a teacher new to this [lesson/task]?

Regarding the 2017-18 school year so far, here are answers to my own questions:

(1) What successes have you had?
This is my fourth year as an instructional coach and I'm laughing and shaking my head at how green I was during my first three years as an instructional coach (or instructional idiot). One of the skills I have come to realize is most important in education is listening. Take the time to listen. Don't listen with the intention to make a suggestion to fix someone's problem. Listen to them. Learn from them. Find out what's most important to them. Listen to learn. Listening allows you to make connections with that person. Ask open-questions that allow teachers to share. Listen. When you think they're done telling their stories, ask questions that dig deeper, allowing you to learn even more about that person, whether it's their personal story, their educational story, or their aspirational story.

Collect stories.
This comes from the "Art of Coaching" by Elana Aguilar. Our district's coaches group has been reading Elana's book throughout the year and most of her strategies always go back to collecting the stories of the people you support. At least that's my interpretation. And how do you collect stories? By asking questions and listening!

Let me give you specific examples without identifying any of the teachers I work with.
If I didn't take the time to collect stories by asking questions and listening, I might not have learned a teacher's story about getting into education late after being divorced and losing a child. I might not have learned about a teacher's hardship with divorce and living between two places while trying to do right by their child. I might have never learned that a teacher has a farm and rides their horse frequently. I might not have learned about a teacher who loves to go thrift-shopping. I might not have learned about a teacher who is new to teaching and their previous math teacher is a teacher I supported two years ago. I might not have learned about a teacher and their adopted children. I might not have learned about a teacher going through their second battle with breast cancer. I might not have learned about a teacher's love of the outdoors and traveling. Needless to say, these personal stories take the coaching relationship to a level I never would have imagined. The work we do as professionals stems from a better personal understanding of each other.

(2) What challenges have you had?
Vision and Systems
Imagine listening to two bands play live music. The first band sounds great. You might not know why, especially if you're not a musician. Here are some reasons why they might sound great. All the instruments are tuned and their volume seems to compliment each other. The musicians know when to start and stop the song. The singer has a good voice because they are in key. And there are way more reasons why a band might sound good to your ears.
On the other hand, the other band sounds awful. Again, you might not be able to put your finger on why the second band sounds awful, but I'll give you some potential reasons. One or more of the instruments is out of tune. One or more of the instruments' volume is obnoxiously too loud. Maybe the musicians don't have confidence in starting a song, the tempo is off, they miss a transition, play off notes, or the singer is out of key. Again, multiple reasons why a band might sound awful.

You don't have to be a musician to tell a good band apart from a bad band. The point is we recognize when something is off and when something is on. Let me explain why a band might be on or off: vision and systems.

Typically, a band that performs well, started with a vision (or goal). For example, a blues band wants to perform cover songs of their favorite artists. For them to accomplish what they envision (their goal), they need to put into place a system that will accomplish said vision. Their system might include, but not be limited to the following:
• create a set list
• schedule rehearsals
• be on time for rehearsals
• establish norms at rehearsals
• have tuned instruments
• listen to each other when rehearsing their songs
• identify parts of songs that need more refinement
• and the list can go on

If a band who wants to perform well has a vision and a system, they're more likely going to sound great when performing in front of a live audience. Often times, bands that sound exceptional put a ton of time, care, passion, and attention into their system. When bands sounds like garbage, they lack the system (and sometimes talent). During the last four years as an instructional coach, I've been part of both bands. Bands that have a clear vision and system and bands that lack a vision and system.

So what's my challenge? My challenge (moving forward) is getting frustrated when I'm part of an educational "band" that lacks vision and system, especially when the strengths and passions of students and teachers are not being utilized. I don't always know how to constructively voice my concerns or ask questions when the vision is unclear and a system is lacking? How do I use my strengths and passions to create and/or enhance a vision and system I am proud to be a member of? I have more questions than ideas here and will continue to look for guidance in this area because I get frustrated when I see great potential untapped.

However, it has been beneficial that I've been part of both educational "bands". The experiences have allowed me to appreciate the effectiveness of vision and system. My high school director is amazing and has great vision and systemic thinking. Having been part of the systems this person has created, I learned a great deal. I'm not done learning as I still have plenty to learn.

(3) What advice do I have for a teacher new to this?
Listen, collect stories, and be patient.
As I expressed above, the more I listened to the teachers I support with the intention to learn more about them and what's important to them, our work will be more meaningful and productive. For example, as an early instructional coach, I often identified what I thought the teacher needed. Nope, don't do that. With experience, I learned to listen to what was important to the teacher and I often verify it by paraphrasing it back to them to be sure.

Collecting stories simply means learn more about the people you interact with. Whether it's your students, your colleagues, your neighbors, or your mail carrier, everyone has a story that's worth knowing. Imagine how meaningful it is when you share your story with someone and they remember it next time you see them or are mindful of a tough situation you're going through. Listening and collecting stories of those we interact with is a gift we can frequently give them.

Being patient is a general statement that can translate to "it takes time". The longer I'm in education, the more I realize things take time. Just like a good performing band, it takes time. I can't appreciate where I am now if it weren't for the instructional coach (idiot) I was a few years ago. Now, I'm just less of an idiot. I'm grateful for the teachers I've supported because they've had patience with me and allowing me to grow as a coach. How unfair would it be to them if I didn't reciprocate that same token of professionalism? Therefore, anytime you would like to grow as a professional, parent, friend, neighbor, or person, be patient with others and be patient with yourself.



  1. Thank you for this post. I am working on improving my listening, but have a long way to go.
    As a dept we are struggling through clarifying our vision and improving/recreating our system. I would love to hear more sometime about what has worked well in you high school director's system.
    "Collecting stories" puts a name to something i should do more purposefully. Adding that phrase to my desk blotter and that book to my summer reading list.
    Congratulations on successfully prioritizing family time. We will always be here, but kids grow and go far too quickly. :)

    1. Thanks for sharing, Leeanne.
      I've learned that listening is a always a work in progress. I don't pretend to have it nailed, but I do know it's something I've made a priority and now see the value in it.
      Long story short, my HS director establishes purpose, expects accountability, creates ways to measure growth and success, looks to build capacity in people, has high expectations, and uses positive affirmation frequently.


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