5 things elite instructional coaches should be doing
I’ve been in hundreds of schools and coached thousands of teachers. Let’s be real. There is a right way and a wrong way to do instructional coaching. While most districts across the country lay claim to coaching programs, very few actually embody and execute on the original intention of instructional coaching. We started calling it “coaching” for a reason. We wanted our instructional coaching to resemble athletic models of coaching. In these models there are experts, there are learners, and there is a clear picture of what elite performance looks like.
Unfortunately, what many schools have developed looks less like instructional coaching and more like instructional reflection. Is reflection an essential behavior for any great teacher? Yes. Is reflection coaching? Absolutely not. Here’s how I know. I was fortunate enough to be a student athlete through college. There were many times (and I mean many) when I didn’t execute in the way my coach would have preferred. In those moments he would yell from the sideline to correct my behaviour. I can tell you with 100% certainty, there was never a time when I fouled up on the field and my coach addressed the misstep by yelling, “Weston...tell me how you felt about that last play.” And yet, if we sit in on much of the instructional coaching post-observation conferences happening in our schools, we discover the majority of the conversation is centered around questions very similar to that one. “Tell me how you felt about that lesson.” “Tell me what you think went well?” “Tell me where you think you can improve?” Uggh. Tell me when this “coaching” session is going to be over.
If we are serious about creating a culture of excellence in our schools we have to start getting serious about excellent instructional coaching. Here are five things instructional coaches should be doing in schools to have the greatest impact on student achievement:
1. Double Down on Teacher Talent
Great coaches don’t try to turn all of their teachers into flipped learning or station rotation drones because those are the buzzwords du jour. They know their teachers and they know instruction well enough to match talent with high effect size strategies. If a teacher is a master story-teller, an elite coach will cultivate their skills in direct instruction because they know it has a .6 effect size. If a teacher loves Socratic Seminar, an effective coach will match them with tools and strategies that help them question at an effect size of nearly .5. Think about it this way. We wouldn’t try to turn a 5’6” runner with blazing speed into an offensive lineman. We’d leverage his speed to make him an exceptional running back. The same is true for teaching. See talent. Nurture talent.
2. Encourage Teachers to Grow and Participate in a PLN
One of the hallmarks of an effective coach is the ability to access knowledge across a variety of sources. If a coach is only offering themselves as a resource, they aren’t stretching their teachers enough. Encourage educators to leverage Professional Learning Networks on social media as a means to follow exceptional practitioners in our field. Read early and often to discover the solutions others are finding to the common problems we all share in the classroom. But don’t stop at consumption. Push teachers to share what they are doing as a means of not simply consuming the content of others, but also to contribute to the conversation in a meaningful way. Not only is it a great opportunity to reflect, it is a non-selfish approach to social media that benefits us all.
3. Make Coaching Synchronous and Asynchronous
The synchronous part of coaching is easy. It’s the live, face-to-face conversation we have with teachers in the midst of, or following a lesson. The great part of synchronous coaching are the conversations, collaboration, and relationships that come as a result. The downside of synchronous coaching is often it’s limiting impact. It’s a conversation between two people that will benefit (professionally) at most...two people. However, elite instructional coaches capitalize on the insight they get into a multitude of classrooms. When they do all those observations and all of that modeling and team teaching, they observe trends. I encourage all instructional coaches to identify trends, record videos offering solutions to those problems that seem to show up time and time again, and send them to the larger population of teachers to view at a time of their choosing. In doing so, your post observation discussions can remain confidential, but the advice can reach a larger audience who may be able to benefit immediately.
“What are we talking about? Practice? We’re talking about practice, man.”
Yup. We’re talking about practice. There’s this thing that most teachers never do even though we understand it makes us profoundly better educators. Are you ready? It’s practice. We almost never do it. If you’ve never heard of microteaching, you need to stop what you’re doing and go here. The best instructional coaches utilize microteaching early and often to ensure teachers develop skills in environments that promote optimum growth and development. In every district where I work, microteaching is a critical piece of the puzzle in creating world class educators. Why? Because microteaching has an effect size of .88 and can grow student achievement by more than two academic years over a single calendar year of time.
5. Nurture a Culture of Positivity
I have not found a single initiative, not one, that can thrive in a culture of negativity. Elite coaches know this and they cultivate positive school culture wherever they go. That doesn’t mean they avoid difficult conversations. It means they clearly define their desires to support teachers at all costs. Furthermore, they work daily to build relationships on a foundation of mutual respect, while committing their efforts to the growth and development of children. In doing so, when difficult conversations arise, all parties understand that the discourse is grounded in a desire to achieve results, as opposed to one person’s desire to assert expertise over another. Teachers are cut from the same cloth. We entered this profession to help others. If coaches come to the table with this belief about every teacher they work with, and they enter into conversations believing that we all care about kids, we can grow coaching programs that are both joyful and effective. I’m Positive.
I've been so privileged to work with educators from every single state in the US and more than 30 countries around the world. I've learned a lot about which tools the world's most innovative blended teachers use to create 21st century learning experiences for kids. As such, based on all my travel, all my coaching, and the thousands of classroom teachers I've observed, here are what I believe to be the most frequently used and most impactful tools available for teachers in the digital learning space today.
Why it's wrong & how educators and parents can fix it.
In a culture saturated with buzzwords and catchy phrases, the term "Digital Natives" has emerged as a set of adjectives to describe everyone from newborns to millennials.
The phrase first emerged in 2001 when coined by Marc Prensky in an article titled Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. The article asserts that students today are all "native speakers" of the digital language of computers.
This is a clever play on words. It is also complete fiction. Seriously, ask any teacher in the trenches who's taking the time to integrate educational technology. They'll tell you time after time how surprised they are to discover how little kids actually know about online productivity and even basic functionality.
By in large, today's students are native swipers, gamers, and social media darlings. End of list. Rest assured this is not a knock on our students. They can no sooner help who they are than water can help being wet. But the fact remains, the notion of kids as digital natives is a myth.
Want more proof? Consider this:
Educators: Cultivate digital skills within the confines of your content areas. Instead of "computer time", allow kids to organically grow 21st century competencies in their pursuit of new knowledge and skills. Gone are the moments when kids should be taught things like google slides, sheets, and forms in isolation. Be the teacher who allows students to learn content and computing simultaneously. You'll find the result to be not only more gratifying, but also more purposeful. Spoon feeding tech competency is the slowest possible way we can build tech skills. Push kids to problem solve, persevere, help one another, and develop the mindset and grit they'll need for the tools that have yet to be invented.
Parents: Don't let tech put distance between you and your children. Allow it to draw you closer together. Let it be the thing that allows you to learn in tandem while pursuing curiosities and creating new things...together. When your son or daughter asks how much the earth weighs or why the sky is blue, look it up. Together! Teach your children how to search the Internet safely. Teach them how to refine their search when what they're looking for doesn't immediately make itself known. Many will be baffled to learn there is information beyond the first page of Google.
Here's a fact. We are all digital immigrants. We are all immigrants in the sense that each of us has and will be required time after time to explore and master technologies that are unfamiliar. Technology doesn't divide us according to immigrants and natives. It unites us under the same banner.
In my travels I’m frequently approached by teachers and parents with questions about parenting in an increasingly daunting digital age. It’s a tough time to parent. With that in mind, here are three things you can do immediately to increase your chances for success and decrease the likelihood your kids will find trouble online.
Google Yourself: One of the most important seeds of understanding analog parents need to plant in their tech-centric children is an awareness around their digital footprint. Your digital footprint consists of all the information about you that exists on the internet as a result of your (or your family members, friends, and acquaintances) online activity. But we’re talking about my kids here. Why do I need to Google myself? Simple; because we can’t teach what we don’t fully understand. If you’re wondering right now whether or not you even have a digital footprint, chances are, you do. Yes, even you social media holdouts and internet avoiders. Google any of the following: your full name, your full name and maiden name, your name and where you went to high school, your name and an old address, you and your spouse's’ full names together, your name and your ex’s name (yeah...I went there). In all likelihood, you’ll be shocked by what you find. Once you understand the reach of the internet and the connectivity of your relationships in the virtual space, you can then help your kids understand what’s at stake for them. Because what’s at stake is bigger than they may realize. Here are the big teaching points:
Be Vigilant and Authoritative About Tech at Night: It’s no surprise that kids are most likely to run into trouble online at the same times they’re likely to encounter it in the real world. Nighttime is when the majority of kids are most active on their devices. Consequently, it’s the time that they are most likely to make poor choices. Removing tech from bedrooms also removes the temptations. Furthermore, it’s just a healthier habit relative to sleep and readiness for the day ahead. In a 2015 study, researchers from Seton Hall uncovered some concerning behaviors:
Stay Involved. Do Your Best to Stay Current: Let me be clear...It is not our job to like what our kids like. It is our job to know what they like. Then and only then can we work to safeguard them from some of the digital pitfalls that exist online. Here are two examples that I think best illustrate why it’s important to stay current:
These tips certainly aren’t the end all be all of successful digital parenting, but they’re a good place to start. Don’t hesitate to reach out to me or someone you trust for guidance through the minefield that is digital parenting. We’re all in this together.
It’s risky to speak in absolutes. I get it. Some might even say it’s reckless. But let’s face it, in education there are things that are, and things that simply are not. Our ability to survive and thrive in a world of high expectations, low compensation, and mediocre appreciation is dependent on our ability to embrace and adapt to the things that are rather than lament the absence of the things that will likely never be. For example, kids are prone to irresponsibility. It’s an absolute truth. Cognitive science tells us their brains won’t be wired for foresight and good decision making until after they leave us. In the midst of this reality we have two choices:
a. We can throw up our hands and add to the noise around “kids these days”.
b. We can go to work knowing the obvious; that our job is not to sit back admiring behaviors we already see, but to cultivate the behaviors and skills we want to see.
There are some other absolute truths in our profession. I submit them for your thoughtful consideration:
1: Anything worth doing will not be easy.
There is perhaps no other professional for whom this statement is more true than the educator. Teaching with rigor and relevance is hard. Quitting is easy. Leading and inspiring people is hard. Managing them is easy. Relationships take work. Indifference does not. In each case, commit to a relentless pursuit of the former, and a stubborn resistance of the latter.
2: You have to love the kids. It’s not enough just to like them a whole lot.
There's a reason why so many teachers leave the profession. It's because they like kids. But the distance between like and love is infinite. If you can't find something deep down inside you that makes you love your students today, you certainly won't find it 20 years from now when generations of children have buried it under a mountain of late assignments, bathroom requests, and apathy.
3: There is a difference between tasks that are rigorous, and assignments that are hard.
Rigor does not mean something is hard. It means the level of mental acuity required to complete a task is profound. Furthermore, rigorous tasks cultivate skills that can be applied to a multitude of real world scenarios. Hard assignments serve no greater purpose than to provide empty validation to teachers and mountains of discontent for children. Integrating rigor into our classrooms allow kids to grow in develop far better than if they are simply force-fed assignments that are “hard”.
4: You can never have too many white board markers.
Seriously. I mean this both metaphorically and literally. Think of whiteboard markers as strategies and tools of the trade. What worked yesterday may be useless tomorrow. Beg, borrow, and steal "whiteboard markers" from wherever you can find them. Keep them fresh. And be ready to pop the cap off a new one at a moment’s notice. Seriously though...don’t steal your neighbor’s actual whiteboard markers. That’s the educational equivalent of premeditated murder.
5: Movement does not equate to progress.
The end game is achievement. The end game is not covering the content. Masterful teachers understand and embrace the difference between “covering” and “uncovering”. To “cover” is to embrace a checkbox mentality that only serves the adults in the building. To “uncover” embraces a mastery-based approach to learning that puts student achievement and the development of skills front and center in our classrooms.
Here’s to embracing the things that are and striving to achieve the things that have yet to be. Onward and upward my friends!
By Brent Hartsell & Weston Kieschnick
Digital portfolios are an increasingly necessary piece of the puzzle when we talk about holistic student achievement. In environments where project-based learning, creativity, and the cultivation of original content are increasingly valued, digital portfolios are the best tool we have to get a robust sense of a student’s academic competencies. Furthermore, in the last year, as many as 80 leading colleges and universities have announced plans to make some sort of digital portfolio a part of their revamped admissions process.
If college and career readiness is not enough to convince you (parent, school administrator, teacher, or student) to be a proponent for digital portfolios, then consider the following benefits.
Like any practice, simply implementing portfolios is only part of process. Effectively leveraging the power of digital portfolios means that the following characteristics need to be present.
Aligned to Standards
Connected to Reflective Writing
Controlled by Students and Accessible to Teachers
Now that the value is understood, there is plenty to discuss relative to where digital portfolios should live. We are firm believers that schools/districts should not be purchasing platforms for students to house their digital portfolios. While purchased platforms can provide a lot of bells and whistles (most of which are not necessary), they can also create a number of barriers, namely access. Cost should not be an inhibitor of digital portfolios. Instead, schools should be considering portfolios that are already in use by prospective employers, in the “real-world”. That’s right; students should be building their portfolios with an intention beyond their current classroom and in a platform that will be used by others, a platform like LinkedIn. As students move into high school, they should be considering not only their ability to demonstrate competency to their teacher, but also to colleges, universities, and potential employers. It only seems natural for students to build a cumulative representation of their professional and academic achievements. Others agree. Check this out for more.
If you’re not sold on LinkedIn or are interested in implementing digital portfolios in lower grades, don’t despair. There are plenty of great tools out there to begin cultivating digital portfolios, tools that provide low to no cost options and provide an exceptional experience for young digital learners.
Here are just a few examples of tools we have used in our own practice:
Above all, let’s get students taking a deeper look at what constitutes academic success. For those who are struggling on state tests and classroom assessments, a collection of artifacts can present a more complete picture of a student’s capabilities; and thus provide greater opportunity for future success. For those who are already experiencing success, what a great way to create a more tangible representation of their hard work.
As Featured in EdWeek:
Across the PD landscape, video repositories are emerging with claims that they can provide quality professional development that is both cheap and effective. In many cases, none of the above is true. In fact, many of these sites are becoming dumping grounds for mediocre ideas and wasted professional development dollars. These are dollars that could, and should, be spent on coaching and mentoring programs. These programs have been proven time and again to both enhance teacher satisfaction (Edwards, Green, Lyons, et al., 1998) and improve student achievement (Wenglinsky, 2000).
Why shouldn’t you spend money on vetted and filtered content available in many of these video repositories? The answer is simple. Think about it, Twitter, YouTube, Podcasts, Pinterest, Khan Academy, TeacherTube, Facebook, and Google are existing repositories where educators are already freely sharing ideas and best practice. Furthermore, these sources are unfiltered and unvetted; which, believe it or not, is a great thing! It’s great because educators are able to engage in the thoughtful consideration and professional dialogue that is necessary to discern whether or not the examples they find align with the mission and vision of their district, school, or classroom. This sort of filtering and discernment embodies exactly the kinds of 21st century skills we are trying to cultivate in our students.
Furthermore, we should be devoting energy and resources to those things we know will move the academic needle for kids. Simply put, those things include high quality professional development accompanied by consistent coaching and mentoring. We know very little about these video sites and the claims they make. On the contrary, we know a great deal about coaching and it’s impact on both students and teachers. Here are a few of the things we know to be true:
Believe it or not, some will read this and still choose to pay for monthly and yearly “premium” memberships to video sites for educators. We can only speculate as to why. But if I had to venture a guess, I would argue many hope these videos will act as replacements for professional development and robust classroom coaching. Unfortunately, this is the same logic that led some to believe that video and computer technology would ultimately replace the classroom teacher. In fact, we know this could not be further from the truth. The same is true for coaching as it is the classroom. Education is about people. It is about relationships. We move closer to excellence when we increase the points of connectivity between learners and thought leaders. Can this include video content? Absolutely it can. But should it exclude real people doing the real work of coaching and mentoring? Ask yourself if you’re willing to replace your child’s classroom teachers with a cache of video content; and then give me your answer.
It is impossible to overstate the impact blended learning should be having on teaching and learning. Digital tools have the potential to do for classrooms what the Internet did for humanity; allow access to the things we need almost anywhere, at any time, accompanied by an omnipresent availability of information, collaboration, and engaging experiences. As such, digital tools can help us deliver on the promise of classrooms where differentiation, individualization, and personalization are the norm. So why aren’t they? Many of these tools have existed for a decade or more. Where is the learning transformation we were promised? In short, this learning transformation is languishing in a quagmire of perplexing buzzwords and terminologies that are causing more confusion than clarity for many classroom teachers. Most still struggle to define these terms; much less implement them in their classrooms. In that sense, they are merely buzzwords. And as educators, it is not buzzwords that will impact student achievement, but rather a concrete understanding of these terms accompanied by execution that leads to change.
Blended learning has the power to transform teaching and learning by creating rigorous and relevant opportunities for learning in the classroom; but only so far in that we are able to execute and deliver on the potential inherent in the buzzwords that permeate our field. Step one is obtaining clarity. Here are ways masterful teachers and administrators can succinctly answer questions around differentiation, individualization, and personalization.
What is Blended Learning?
Blended learning is a student-centered methodology designed to provide student control of time, place, path, and/or pace through the purposeful alignment of traditional teaching practices and technology enabled learning opportunities. Blended Learning creates opportunities for teachers to re-imagine the learning environment in support of relevant learning practices and increased engagement.
What is Differentiation?
Our first line of defense in eliminating the opportunity and achievement gaps is differentiation. In short, differentiation encompases the multitude of strategies we use for all students all the time. How can technologies equip educators with tools to plan for different learning styles and preferences and provide a multitude of experiences through which they can achieve mastery? Instead of asking why students don't learn the way we teach, we should ask ourselves how we can teach the way students learn. Let’s increasingly adapt to students, instead of expecting students to adapt to us. What different text sources can we utilize to improve engagement? How can we improve access to rich multimedia and make it a vital part of our learning experiences? What opportunities can empower staff and students to utilize social media platforms for academic collaboration? It is far more important for students to leave our classrooms more masterful at a thing they’ve never done, than it is for teachers to leave more masterful at a thing they’ve always done.
What is Individualization?
Individualization plays a critical role within the system of supports that schools must define to meet all student needs and to ensure that all students learn at high levels. In a sense, individualization is less an instructional practice, and more a system of assessing and determining what each individual student needs. It is the gateway through which teachers transition to personalized learning practices. Blended learning pedagogies include models for whole group instructional experiences that serve heterogeneous groups of students; and, individualized supports during which teams provide more time and alternative ways for students to master priorities with which they are struggling. Individualization requires evidence. But assessment, done right and collectively analyzed, takes time. Enter technology tools. Educational technology gives us the opportunity to generate in-the-moment data analytics that were previously unavailable. Kahoot, Google Forms, Poll Everywhere, Padlet, Google Docs, Socrative and dozens of other digital resources provide feedback on students’ responses to our instruction and intervention. When we collect, and more importantly, use this information to inform future teaching and learning and individualized experiences based on students’ responses to first, best instruction, we begin to realize the full potential of digital tools to create individualized learning experiences. Furthermore, individualization is the medium through which students will ultimately take ownership over their own learning goals, so that they can monitor their path to progress, as opposed to waiting from week to week for the teacher to tell them where they stand.
What is Personalization?
Personalization is a function of blended learning and individualization. Because the latter exists, the former is possible. It is an adaptive model of instruction, placing complete focus on customizing all aspects of the learning process for each student. Personalization enables students to self-select the methods for acquiring new knowledge and demonstrating competency, all while placing them at the center of the data driven decisions about their progress and needs. While differentiation leverages collaborative learning to build student mastery of essential skills and concepts; personalization targets specific student needs, passions, and learning preferences. With precision, we can utilize digital assessments and resources to provide targeted supports for individual students in ways that are efficient and effective. We have the capability to use YouTube, Khan Academy, educational apps, game based learning, OpenCourseWare, MOOCs, and an assortment of other tools along with traditional best practice to provide engaging asynchronous instruction for kids, in a way that accounts for their individual proficiency needs. This allows teachers to extend their own capacity within the walls of the classroom and beyond the time constraints of the school day. In short, we can use digital tools to personalize learning experience, so that each child receives the exact interventions they need at the exact time they need them. Technology is a force multiplier; when coupled with progressive pedagogies and practice, digital tools and resources enhance both intervention and enrichment, expanding opportunities to provide students at various times, in various spaces, at various rates, and in various ways.
Blended learning is, simply stated, technologically-enhanced differentiation. The assessment opportunities that digital tools provide allow teachers and students to quickly and efficiently determine proficiency gaps so they can collaborate and set individualized goals for achievement. Once they have done so, they can create a personalized environment whereby synchronous, asynchronous, digital, and traditional strategies support the student on the path to proficiency. When this path is executed with fidelity, these buzzwords may finally allow us deliver on the promises of equity and achievement for all.
Anyone who's lasted in teaching longer than 4 seconds has undoubtedly been the beneficiary of some sound advice. Conversely, if you hang out in the profession long enough you're also bound to hear some terrible advice. Among my least favorite is the adage, "Don't smile before Christmas." If you haven't heard this, count yourself lucky. If you have, you recognize it in the context of a conversation related to classroom management. Veteran teachers often pass this advice to new teachers as a means of offering up a solution to the omnipresence of classroom chatter and general student defiance. Believe it or not, those who peddle this phrase are trying to help. They recognize the importance of classroom management, and their goal is to help you set the stage for a classroom environment in which your voice is heard and your authority is unquestioned. Sadly, what they may fail to recognize is the importance relationships and joy have in a healthy and successful classroom culture.
It is true, you can't teach in chaos. What is also true is that students deserve teachers who value an attitude of "and" as opposed to an attitude of "or". That is to say, those first few months teachers can establish expectations for behavior AND cultivate relationships in a joyful learning environment. I mean seriously, we tell teachers "Don't smile until Christmas" and then wonder why kids hate school. That's like gargling bleach for five months and wondering why your teeth fell out. Sure...the intention is to do good, but the outcome is not. Some out there will read this, and in January point to classrooms of silent and obedient students as evidence of this saying's truth and value. But is that really the goal? Rows of silent kids whose only contributions to the class are to listen and obey? I've been in hundreds of classrooms like this. At first glance they look great, but the sound of consistent classroom silence echoes a level of discontent and student ambivalence that is almost deafening.
Instead, I encourage all teachers in this first few weeks of school to set expectations that go beyond compliance and are grounded in more than fear. Cultivate a culture of high expectations for behavior in an environment that also offers feelings of safety, support, and belonging. Here are some ways we can do that:
I was having a conversation with a friend this morning. He’s a dad; like myself. He’s a teacher; like myself. He loves his children; like myself. During the course of our conversation he mentioned his desire to “Give his kids the world.” Sounds good right? In theory, yes. But in reality, we all know those kids who were given the world, only to grow up expecting the world should continue to provide something for them. In turn, what they offer back to the world is either minimal or self-serving.
I don’t want to give my children the world. I don’t want a desire to be served by others to be my, or their, contribution to humanity. I’m a firm believer that each of us is endowed with a responsibility to give back. Ours is a responsibility not to leave a footprint on humanity. Doing so implies we tread on others to achieve our own success. Instead, I believe our responsibility is more centered on cultivating seeds of initiative, ambition, and selflessness in our kids for the betterment of mankind.
Is that so wrong? A couple of studies out of Penn State and Duke Universities tell me it’s not. In a study of more than 700 kids between the ages of 5 and 25 from across the US, researchers discovered the parents and teachers of successful kids shared these 7 characteristics:
Simply put, I don’t want to give my kids the world. I want to give them each of these 7 things. Additionally, I want to teach them to be kind, wise, strong, and good…and then give the world my kids.