collaboration

“Excellence is not an act, but a habit.”

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Sydney Crosby, Rory McIlroy, Rafeal Nadal, Lindsey Vonn, Dr. Atul Gawande, Itzhak Perlman, and Usain Bolt share a number of commonalities. Each has reached the upper echelon of their chosen profession — be it sports, music, or medicine.  Yet, despite being at the pinnacle of their individual professions, recognized as true models of excellence, they each also have a coach.

As an educator, my professional practice has been shifting away from the traditional paradigm of a teacher, to become more of an instructional coach for the students who bound into school each day.  As an educator, much of my day is spent offering and developing specific, targeted, and deliberate practice / feedback so that students can develop the depth and breadth of abilities they will require for future success.  Simply, learners improve by working on what they are not good at.

I would like to see more of an instructional coaching model help improve my professional practice, shape the growth and development of my profession, and ultimately strengthen student learning.  Teaching and learning is simply too complex to be able to be successful in isolation.  Without another set of eyes, offering a different perspective, people are unable to achieve and maintain their personal best.  The idea that once you graduate, from something like middle school, high school, university, driver’s ed, or cooking school, that you no longer require instruction, is simply outdated.

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As an educator, I know that I will always have something to work on.  As a professional, I recognize that each of my colleagues will always have something to work on.  As an educational leader, I will always value the role coaching contributes to the journey of continuous improvement.  As the husband of a learning coach, I see the importance of letting teacher’s, like students, take ownership for learning and choose their individualized path; be it keeping a mini-lesson truly mini, developing improved questioning, making better use of assessment data, organizing better collaborative meetings, or adopting new classroom management strategies.  The list is and should be, truly endless.

I see coaching being an essential role of every school administrator.  The most effective learning leaders are those who observe, judge, and help facilitate professional learning.  They enable their colleagues to become more competent; to move through the four stages of competence.

It’s certainly true that some background knowledge and expertise is important to be an effective coach, but the best players do not necessarily make the best coaches.  The great violinist, Itzhak Perlman is a case in point.  His wife is his coach.  Coaches don’t need to know it all.

“She is an extra ear.” She’d tell him if a passage was too fast or too tight or too mechanical—if there was something that needed fixing. Sometimes she has had to puzzle out what might be wrong, asking another expert to describe what she heard as he played”.

Gehry Excellence

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It is in this context that I find myself wondering, how do principals and headmasters stay at their best?  I think looking to the world of sports, medicine and the model that already exists in education, offers great opportunity. Instructional coaches are becoming increasingly common in our schools.  Perhaps it is time that formal educational leaders tap into the potential that coaching offers to further support their work.

To close, I wanted to leave you with one of my favourite quotations. It’s one of the values that my family emphasized while I was growing up and is one that I hope to impart in my three sons, and the kids who I work with every day.

“We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence is not an act, but a habit.”

I’ve never really known who originated the quote, but according to a recent episode of Grey’s Anatomy, it’s attributed to one of the great Greek philosophers.  Thanks to coaches like Maggie Moon, Pam Harper, Justin Medved, and Tom Baker, I know that coaching helps ensure that the work you do is your personal best, helps a school strive towards excellence,  and helps improve student learning.

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Looking For Learning

Getting back into some sort of blogging routine feels a lot like getting back to the gym.  I have great aspirations, but do not seem to always find time to fit everything in.  It’s hard.  So last week, I set a small personal goal for myself … try and build a blogging routine by posting something this week.

Following up on my previous post, I continue to find myself thinking about learning — its big idea, what it means to me, and my colleagues? What does it look like in our community?  I am a firm proponent that schools should always be learning focused collaborative endeavors.  As an educator, my professional practice continues to be a work in progress, constantly changing, adapting, and evolving. Now I am much more of a “coach” or “critical friend” to the kids I work with than ever before.  Quick, timely, formative feedback is incredibly powerful either on the ice at a hockey practice or in a reading workshop.  I would not want it any other way.

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As an educator, I am looking for a similar critical friend or learning coach to help improve my professional practice.  It is something I look for in my colleagues and formal administrators.  Fieldwork Education’s   Looking for Learning protocol is the closest experience I’ve had to receiving consistent, timely formative feedback.

Looking for Learning, is an effective process for working collaboratively with colleagues (teachers, instructional coaches, parents, principals, etc.) to see what learning is happening in classrooms.  The focus is on student learning.  So talking to kids about their learning is at the center of each visit.  Should a teacher be in the midst of a mini-lesson, classroom visitors can simply move on to another room, and drop by later when whole group instruction is no longer in progress.

Ten to 20 minutes is the typical length of a teacher or administrator’s classroom visit.  In the busy day to day routines, finding ten or 20 minutes here and there to visit a colleagues classroom is easily manageable.   However, it is absolutely fabulous when I manage to set aside an hour to visit and talk with students about their learning in a wide range of classrooms, grade levels, and content areas.

When visiting a classroom and talking to kids, four essential understandings helped shape conversations:

Is this a learning classroom? This simple line of questioning is incredibly powerful.  It is non-threatening and one that every educator, parent, and student would expect to hear a resounding, YES!  When a learning community has an established, shared common definition of learning, the power if this question is amplified.

Is the learning appropriate and sufficient?   As an elementary literacy teacher, this idea always makes me think of students’ “Just Right Books”.  Ideally, learning for the kids should not be too difficult, nor too easy.  It should be just enough of a stretch that they can independently achieve a level of success.  When speaking to kids, I tried to speak with them in order to find out if they were learning something new, consolidating their learning, simply treading water, or drowning.

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What is helping or hindering the learning? This is perhaps my favorite line of questioning.  I always found it to be amazing to hear students reflect on who they are as a learner, identify what they see as a need to further support their learning, and articulate exactly what is helping them on their journey.

Here’s a list of possible questions to help guide your conversations with kids.

The final piece of the puzzle is getting together with a colleague to share and discuss your visit.  This always created the biggest challenge for me, but I soon found that a short conversation over coffee at recess worked best.  It is easy to participate in a reflective conversation with your colleagues because Looking for Learning is not evaluative.  As the visitor, your role is to simply share out the evidence you collected during your visit, not your impression, your opinion, or suggestions for next steps.  When visiting classrooms, I tried to take detailed notes because I always found receiving specific quotes from the kids seemed to encourage reflection because they helped me recognize if my perception matched those of my students.

I am a BIG fan of Looking for Learning. Not only do I see its great potential to support student learning, but what I like most is that after speaking with students and my colleagues, I find myself energized and enriched by the experience. Thank you Pam Harper and Fieldwork Education.

“Is that clear Mr. Bender?”

Originally Posted February 2011

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Earlier today, I participated in one of our weekly PG&D (Professional Growth & Development) afternoons at Saudi Armaco Schools.  It was a productive time spent collaboratively building understanding of the Words Their Way program.  Time, planning, and effort had obviously been well spent by Jen, our literacy coach, to set the stage for a productive meeting. Tables of treats were organized to help boost our groups energy at the end of a work day and near the end of the work week in Saudi Arabia.  A protocol was selected to help facilitate collaboration and focus our dialogue.  I liked this.  I’m a big fan of protocols!!  Group members were assigned different roles within the process and everyone was expected to, and did, contribute.  After working through the protocol with my team, the reporters from each grade level team (k-5) shared out their findings.

Our collaborative time was well spent as we worked to better understand the Words Their Way program.   A great many ideas and themes emerged that will be helpful in moving forward.  So did a number of “big picture” questions …

Why are we implementing this program?
What do we hope to accomplish?
How will this benefit our learners?

I love these types of questions for a number of reasons, but mainly because they demonstrate that my colleagues care about students and student learning. These questions could easily be interpreted as resistance to change, colleagues reluctant to try something new or move in a different direction.  However, from a leadership prospective, I like the questions because they provide me with additional insight into next steps.

At the moment, I am in the middle of reading Switch, Chip & Dan Heath’s book about change.  One point that they highlight is that what is perceived as resistance is often a result of a lack of clarity.  People need crystal clear directions.  Think about it.  A doctor can’t just say to a patient that they need to loose weight, and expect success.  So doctor’s clearly layout the need for change with metrics and outline a plan for success … changes to diet, lifestyle, and specific goals with repeated check-ups to monitor progress.

So when asking teachers to adopt a new program or undergo a change of any sort, think about clarity, especially when faced with resistance.  A friend Dana also reminded me this week to take a moment to check your Vision?  Has the rationale for any change been clearly identified and communicated?  How has clarity been achieved around the intended goal and the benefits to student learning?  Is there anything else that can be done to add clarity? Maybe there’s something we can learn from Principal Richard Vernon, in the  The Breakfast Club.

Start With Teachers

Originally Posted February 2011

I believe that schools are great places, filled with great people, and great learning; but in the complex world of the

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21st century, that’s simply not enough.  Our students deserve better than simply maintaining the status quo.  As a profession, we have a responsibility of becoming “better”.  What does it take to become better?  According to Atul Gawande, it simply “takes a willingness to try”. But where do you start?  What do you try?

I think that Schmoker and Marzano convincingly say, start with the teachers.  Their work clearly links the quality of a teacher with student learning and success.  A year with an ineffective teacher greatly inhibits student learning and achievement.  Two successive years of ineffective instruction is debilitating.  In contrast, a year with a highly effective teacher is very powerful and two successive years with highly effective teachers enables student learning and achievement to soar.  So, what do you do?

You start by being a learning leader.  You start by being a teacher.  I think that everyone in education aspires to be the “highly effective” teachers.  People always want to do their best.  No one wants to be the “ineffective teacher”.  However, like the students in our classrooms and people in every profession, there are varying decrees of competence and excellence.  So where do you start? What do you try?

You start with the positive assumption that teachers are doing the best they can with what they know, and begin to expand the depth and breadth of their knowledge. People are comfortable sticking to what they know and what they know works.  It’s human nature.  Why reinvent the wheel?  So show them something new, something alternative, something better. Show them that “new wheel”!  Share a favourite book. author, website, blog, podcast or resource. It’s unreasonable to expect students to learn something new unless we have shared it with them.  Why should teachers be any different?  Show your colleagues a better possibility and they will more likely to attempt a new instructional practice rather than stick with the familiar and known.

Get teachers working together.  Today’s world is too complex to manage by yourself.  Schools and the work of educators, is no different.  Build schedules that allow for easy collaboration. Include training and staff development on collaboration.  Cooperation is easy.  Collaboration is hard work. People need to know how to participate in a collaborative group, they need to know how to produce an agenda, to come to a decision and communicate it,  to understand the difference between dialogue and discussion.  The work of Robert Garmston with the Center for Adaptive Schools is a great place to start.  Start modeling the use of protocols when working with small and large groups, and gradually begin training the early adapters and informal leaders in your community on their use and purpose.  If you do, Critical Friends Group training will soon follow.

Start getting rid of shared drives, servers, Rubicon Atlas, and cluttered email In boxes.  Begin using Google’s Education Apps in your school.  There are incredible tools at your finger tips, so get exploring.  Google Docs and Google Calendar are simple and effective tools for getting people to work together collaboratively.  Imagine teams of teachers meeting together to purposefully discuss and share ideas about student learning. Tools like Google Docs are great for collaboratively building agendas, sharing nuts and bolts, and keeping the minutes from a meeting at everyone’s finger tips, their true power is in the ability of teams to craft Essential Questions and Enduring Understandings together, to build units of study or collections of shared resources together, and reflect on student learning at anytime, from anywhere.

Be a role model.  Get out of the office.  Get out of the meeting and into the classrooms and hallways.  Make it an uncompromising priority.  Actions speak louder than words.  As the learning leader in your school, start talking to students about learning.  Start talking to teachers about learning.  Engage in these conversations daily. If you do, students and teachers will take notice.  Fiedlwork Education’s “Looking For Learning” has excellent resources and ideas for building this reflective practice.  Soon teachers, students, and all community members will see that learning is the priority, not teaching.  They will see how they are expected to interact with each other.  They will be more likely to visit each other’s classrooms.  We know that providing students with exemplars is an effective instructional practice.  So why not do it with your faculty?  Get your teachers learning from the best, by seeing the best!

If students are the most important people in your school and their learning is the central focus, then what are you doing to make it better?  All you need to do is try.

Monday Musings #18 – Effective Communication

Originally Posted January 2011

For the past few summers, I’ve been attending week long workshops in Miami at the Principal’s Training Center.

Communication

Each workshop has been incredibly rewarding, interesting, and enriching.  I also find myself making new friends and building a list of colleagues I hope to have the opportunity of working with at some point in the future.

Dan Kerr, the Middle School Vice-Principal at the Shanghai Community International School, is one of these great leaders.  Throughout the year, Dan has graciously included me in “Monday Musings”, a weekly email to his colleagues relating to a variety of educational thoughts, ideas, articles, or podcasts.  In Saudi Arabia, Monday marks the middle of the work week, and I find myself looking forward to hearing what Dan has to share.  As a teacher, leader, collaborator, and community member, Dan’s message on communication is essential reading.  Here’s what Dan shared with his faculty this week ….

After spending the last few weeks reflecting on the mistakes that I’ve made over the last few months, and the many “do-over” moments that I wish I had back, I have come to an interesting conclusion. Almost every single issue, problem, regret, and misstep that I can think of could have easily been avoided had I communicated more effectively. So this week I want to talk about the benefits and beauty of…………….. Effective Communication.

    The truly interesting part of this realization is that in many instances I actually thought I had communicated effectively. The problem was that I was making assumptions and taking things for granted, which in a large school like ours, having to deal with students, faculty, parents and the surrounding community, becomes problematic. Just having said the words, or sent an E-mail, or relied on someone else to deliver some news isn’t enough………..the magic lies in the follow up and the feedback! 

    The other part to this that is often overlooked, is that effective communication is a two way street. Not only is it important to say what we really need to say clearly and concisely, we also need to speak up when we don’t understand or feel confused. Listening is very underrated in my opinion and a skill that needs to be taken seriously. I know of a few schools that have spent a large portion of their PD budget on Active Listening consultants, or workshops that focus on pausing, paraphrasing, presuming positive intent, and strategies that allow you to really HEAR what someone is saying.
    
     Miscommunication has many facets and can strike in a number of different ways. Think of the messages we send out with our body language or the tone of our voice. Communicating effectively is a full time job that encompasses all that we do, in every aspect of our lives. Just think of the problems and stress that we all could have avoided had we been a little bit better at communicating with each other. 

    There’s another part to this as well, that for me is the most essential. The old adage, “It’s not WHAT you say, but HOW you say it!” I read a wonderful quote the other day by Carl Buechner that says, “they may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” A goal of mine for second semester is to become a better communicator and I am challenging you all to take a good look at how well you communicate with your students, your colleagues or the parent community. I think if we look deeply enough we can all find ways to improve, and together we can make our school a better place for everyone. Have a fantastic week and remember to be great for your students and to effectively communicate with each other!

    Quote of the Week………..

The problem with communication is the illusion that is has occurred.   – George Bernard Shaw

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