Difficult Conversations

One of the things I’m enjoying most about being on our coaching team here at ISB is the opportunity to openly share our challenges so that we can all work together to improve our practice. This week we had our first book club meeting to discuss the first chapter of Coaching: Approaches and Perspectives edited by Jim Knight.

To facilitate our conversation, we followed the Final Word protocol. Each of us selected a particular section of the text which stood out during our reading, and following the protocol process, discussed what was so important about that statement in a round-robin format. Although we all selected different sections, they seemed to have a common element: how to move beyond simply supporting teachers to increase their comfort level within our curricular areas to implementing changed practices with all faculty members to improve student learning.

The section of the book that we ended up focusing on the most was about Coaching Heavy and Coaching Light. The author of this chapter, Joellen Killion

assert[s] that there are two kinds of coaching – coaching light and coaching heavy. The difference essentially is the coaches’ perspective, beliefs, role decisions, and goals, rather than what coaches do… Coaching light occurs when coaches want to build and maintain relationships more than they want to improve teaching and learning. From this perspective, coaches act to increase their perceived value to teachers by providing resources and avoiding challenging conversations. (p. 22)

Coaching heavy, on the other hand, includes high-stakes interactions between coaches and teachers, such as curriculum analysis, data analysis, instruction, assessment, and personal and professional beliefs and how they influence practice… Coaching heavy requires coaches to say “no” to trivial requests for support and to turn their attention to those high-leverage services that have the greatest potential for teaching and learning. Coaching heavy requires coaches to work with all teachers in a school, not just those who volunteer for coaching services. Coaching heavy requires coaches to seek and use data about their work and regularly analyze their decisions about time allocation, services and impact. (p. 23 -24)

Reading this section I realized that often times I am coaching light, but not always because of a decision I’ve consciously made. I am hyper-aware of the anxiety level most teachers have when dealing with technology, which often results in focusing more on making teachers comfortable with the tools than initiating difficult conversations about changing practice. I wonder if this issue is specific to those of us working in the technology area, or if it’s really just the same as coaches helping to implement a new math, reading or science program?

I do believe that those difficult conversations are much easier once you’ve developed a trusting relationship and that only happens when teachers feel supported. Killion mentions that it often takes coaches a whole year to move from coaching light to coaching heavy because of all the ground-work required to build trusting relationships, but that they can also get trapped into coaching light indefinitely if they are not careful.

I’m wondering now, how can coaches tell when it’s time to move from coaching light to coaching heavy? I’m also conscious of the fact that those deeper conversations don’t always have to happen in a formal setting, they can be quick snippets in the hallway that build upon previous sessions or discussions over lunch or even in a social setting. Do coaches keep track of where they are with each teacher, as you would with a class of students, so that you have a running record of what step to take next?

The other issue that jumped out at me was that coaches are required and expected to work with all teachers. This directly contradicts my long-held belief in working with the willing. Perhaps I simply need to adjust that to: we should start with the willing, but know that eventually we do have to work with everyone. I do still firmly believe that to work with everyone, with the focus on improving student learning (which may entail changing teaching practice), requires clear and transparent communication from administrators about our roles and purpose.

Perhaps the most reassuring sentence (for me) in this particular set of paragraphs is that coaching heavy requires coaches to say “no” to trivial requests for support in favor of more meaningful actions that will have a deeper impact on student learning. One of the biggest challenges for me has always been saying no. I like to believe I can do everything, and that I can make everyone’s job easier by supporting everyone, everywhere at any time. It’s important for me to remind myself that this only ends up diluting the impact I can make on both student and teacher learning. I need to remember that I am in control of my time and that I need to prioritize which tasks I undertake on a daily basis. Letting my day get carried away with the little things is not fulfilling my role, and it’s not helping my school move forward. (Maybe I should post this above my desk?).

Saying that a coach’s role is to support teachers misleads teachers. A coach’s primary responsibility is to improve student learning. (p. 27, point #3)

Reading this, I wonder what most teachers would think. I know that I have often been referred to as a “support” person or a “resource” person, and to be honest, I never felt the term was quite right, but I didn’t know why. Now I do. A “resource” is something to be used (or not) and then tossed aside. A “resource” is not something that might cause you to change deeply held beliefs or to re-evaluate your practice. A “resource” is not challenging. If teachers see us as “resources” or “support” people, they will not understand the work we are trying to do or how we fit into the school’s vision and purpose.

By making observations, stating their point of view, and inquiring into practice, coaches erode stagnant practice and unchallenged routines to spark analysis, reflection, and appropriate change. In this role, a coach is not about change for change sake, but rather for continuous improvement and fine-tuning to meet clearly articulated goals. (p. 13)

All too often it feels like teachers view technology as yet another swing in the pendulum of education, something they have to adopt because it’s the “cool new thing,” but not because they really believe in the impact it can have on student learning. It’s reassuring to me to see that other instructional coaches face this same dilemma.

One of the most difficult conversations that seems to come along frequently in technology is when teachers want to replicate what they always do (for example, a poster) “on the computer” because it will look cooler to the parents (or to their administrators) – not because of the potential that technology might have to offer. I’m thinking that effective questioning strategies, as part of coaching heavy, are what can move the conversation along from substitution to transformation. I’m also wondering if distributing a LOTI survey can help begin to plant the seeds in teachers’ minds about the different levels of technology implementation?

Final Thoughts

Once again, I am impressed by the value of looking at other, more established, fields in education to understand more deeply and improve my practice in the area of technology facilitation. Considering we’re only on the first chapter of the book, I’m sure coaching is going to provide a lot of room for growth!

Facilitator, Coach or Coordinator?

Cross-posted on the TechLearning Advisors Blog

What’s your job title? Yesterday I asked my twitter network the following question:

And received a lot of interesting responses:

Most of us share similar responsibilities, yet we have a wide variety of titles. Just looking back at my own experience over the last ten years in three different schools, my job titles have ranged from Technology Facilitator to Academic IT Coordinator, to 21st Century Literacy Specialist, to Technology Coach, to Technology and Learning Coordinator.

What is it about technology in education that makes it so difficult to define roles that everyone can agree on and understand? Even though we’ve had technology in schools for decades, it still seems like we’re making it up as we go along.

For the last few years I’ve been wondering if there are more established roles, that already exist (and are well-understood) in many schools, which could provide a model for this type of support position. Just because technology often deals with new ways of thinking about education, doesn’t mean that the process of supporting those new ways of thinking has to be different.

Looking at Librarians

When I first arrived at ISB two years ago, I realized just how much librarians have in common with technology facilitators. What impressed me most was the extensive research in the field of librarianship about the process (and effect) of collaboration among colleagues. Although the day-to-day tasks of a librarian versus a technology facilitator might be very different; the established, research-based process of collaboration, which librarians have been refining for decades, certainly provides an interesting inspiration for technology facilitation.

Considering Coaching

With the change in my position this school year, I’ve been thinking a lot about what another established educational role might have to offer technology facilitators: the Instructional Coach. This week, our fabulous visiting consultant, and experienced Literacy Coach, Maggie Moon, attended our Coaching team meeting. She shared an overview of her successes and pitfalls to avoid as a coach:

  • A coach’s 3 major tasks in order of priority are: in the classroom (with teachers & kids, 1:1 or with groups of teachers), out of the classroom (with teachers, 1:1 or with groups of teachers), prep & planning.
  • As a coach, begin with a vision of what you think teachers should/could do. What does the “ideal” teacher look like? How will we see the evidence that our teachers are meeting these expectations?
  • Teaching teachers is just like teaching students: always explain things clearly & succinctly, and remember to show not just tell.
  • Always focus more on the process of teaching well, rather than the content that needs to be taught. Let the content come through as you model best practice instruction.
  • Be sure to track teacher progress by using a conferring notebook with items you’ve been trying to teach, times you are going in to see the teachers doing it (checklist), quality of what teachers are doing – use this to plan more in-classroom work.
  • Have teachers bring student work with them during meeting time so there is evidence of what they are doing and students are learning.
  • Getting started: keep it small, cycle through grade levels (work with 2 grade levels a month, go into classrooms and check in 1:1 with the other grade levels).  Sometimes it makes sense to start with groups to plant seeds, and then continue 1:1.

3 Phases of coaching (rotate through these phases – always possible to return to any of the previous stages):

1. Modeling: in the classroom, you’re teaching the class while the teacher is watching.

  • Pre-conference: Be clear about setting up, discuss with the teacher beforehand what you’re doing & what to watch for and notice. Strategy: use guide sheets which gives structure of how lesson will go and the main components to keep teachers active during lessons
  • In the classroom: Model best practice
  • Post-conference: You reflect at the end of the lesson on what you felt went well, what you would change, to model reflection – reinforcement & refinement. Then, ask teachers what they notice (what questions does this raise?). Then discuss: “how does what you saw me do, differ from what you do?” (what’s different?). Finally, ask “whatever you just saw, how will that change what you do in your classroom?”

2. Coaching: in the classroom, the teacher teaches & you watch (next to them) – give feedback in the moment

  • Start with a reflection with the teacher, ask them what they felt went well, always focus on the positive and be complimentary (any issues, record them and save them for later).
  • If there are content issues (incorrect information), share this right away; issues with methods should be saved for later.

3. Co-teaching (good when you’ve planned a unit over time, building relationships)

Looking over Maggie’s coaching suggestions, I can easily see how all of them are relevant to technology facilitation. From the goal of being in the classroom as a top priority, to focusing on the process not the content, to starting small; everything Maggie shared fit closely with my experience and understanding of technology facilitation.

It’s particularly interesting to me that the process of coaching can be expressed in such concrete steps, so no matter what the grade level or content, Maggie follows a clear process that results in quality collaboration and teaching.

Although I like to think I follow a “process” myself, I feel that, in practice, technology facilitation is often far less systematic. Because it’s so organic, technology facilition can tend to be more individualized – different for each project and teacher. Although I love the fact that everything I do is tailored for each teacher, it’s possible that, as facilitators, we end up re-inventing the wheel each time, simply because we don’t have a systematic approach.

In fact, as Maggie was sharing her tips, our science and math coaches were nodding along with the terminology and processes she described, demonstrating that instructional coaching across content areas shares a vocabulary and philosophy that is worth investigating.

Final Thoughts

Although I can appreciate how much both librarians and coaches have to offer technology facilitators, I still feel that there is something different about technology. When Literacy Coaches are helping teachers learn how to teach reading better, those teachers still know something about teaching reading, they know how to read a book, they know how to spell, and how to write, because the tools of the subject are familiar to them. Technology doesn’t share the same tradition in schools. So what happens when the content area is just as new to the teacher as the best practice teaching?

And then of course, the technological support has to be considered. It would be great to focus solely on the pedagogy, but who deals with the broken projector and the students that can’t log in? I’m sure these are some of the reasons why we have so many different job titles and descriptions.

Clearly, while we can definitely benifit from the extensive experience of librarians and coaches in schools, there is more to a technology support role that needs to be included. So, I’m left wondering:

  • What is still undefined in our conception of the role of a technology facilitator/coach/coordinator?
  • How can we start building consensus on our roles in schools?
  • What can’t we find that’s relevant to technology support when examining more established positions in schools?
  • What does your job description include?