Coaching Teachers to Great Work - Steve Barkley

Coaching Teachers to Great Work

This week my colleague, Sandy Washmon, sent me a link to a video clip that features an upcoming book from Michael Bungay Stainer, a senior partner at Box of Crayons: Find Your Great Work

The video clip led me to download (free) the first three chapters of the book. A quick read caused me to connect that the work of coaches in school should lead to teachers finding more great work. Teachers doing great work should also lead to students finding great work (a later blog posting).

Here are Stainer’s definitions for bad, good, and great work:

Bad Work
A waste of time, energy & life. Doing it once is one time too many.
In organizations it shows up as bureaucracy, the meetings that go on forever, the outdated processes that waste everyone’s time, the habits and ways of doing things that diminish rather than grow.

Good Work
The familiar, useful, productive work you do and do well. This is how you spend most of your time, and there’s nothing wrong with Good Work. This is work that blossoms from your training, your education, the path you’ve trod so far…all in all, a place of comfort. You always need some Good Work in your life. At an organizational level, Good Work is the company’s bread and butter…the efficient, focused, profitable work that delivers next quarter’s return.

Great Work
The work that matters, inspires, stretches and provokes. This is both a place of deep comfort – “the flow zone” – and discomfort. The comfort comes from its connection, its “sight line” to what matters most to you. The discomfort comes because the work is new, is challenging and as a result, there’s an element of risk and possible failure – and it is work that matters, work that you care about. For organizations, this is the work that drives strategic difference, innovation, “blue ocean strategy” – and longevity.

Those of you who have been in my coaching presentations have heard me suggest that the biggest problem that most principals face is having too many GOOD Teachers and that moving teachers from GOOD to GREAT is a challenging job.

Finding Your Great Work has five foundational principles. Here they are with some of my connecting thoughts on coaching teachers.

#1 Things only get interesting when you take full responsibility for your choices…..

Coaches often cause teachers to reflect and identify that they do have more choices than they initially think. Creativity generates choices. If I chose not to think outside the box, I am limiting my own choices. I recall the time I sat and listened to a teacher in the staff lounge complaining that the system took away recess and students now couldn’t get the movement they needed. Looking out the window, I saw kids on the playground. I excused myself and went out to ask the teacher if her kids were at recess. She quickly replied, “Oh, No! We are not allowed. We are doing hopscotch math. We just finished running for reading. You have to give kids movement.” Teachers make many choices in a single day. Reflecting on those decisions is critical to improving.

#2 Changing your focus changes what is possible.

Just this week a teacher shared this example:
A coach observed my problem class and one of my other classes. Asking me about the way I used my rewards for desired behavior, the coach caused me to discover that seeing the class as a problem caused me to miss seeing the students who were exhibiting the desired behaviors. Missing the desired behaviors, I wasn’t rewarding them…. creating my own downward spiral. As soon as I shifted my focus, I saw the behaviors, rewarded them and saw an immediate improvement in the students in the class.

I was coaching a principal this week as she participated in a professional learning community. A teacher in the group took a negative tone “shot” at a past principal decision. The principal responded defensively. She quickly sensed the defensive comment needed to be explained to the rest of the group. Soon she realized she was”digging the hole deeper” and losing the meeting’s momentum. When we debriefed, the principal suggested she needed to keep her focus on the group and the future more than the individual teacher and the past.

#3 You need to make a full choice…what do you say yes to? … what do you say no to?

One of the difficult decisions in moving from good to great is that I often have to stop doing good things in order to experiment with things that could take me to great. Past success tempts me to go back and get the same (old) good results. Coaches often keep one connected to the full choice.

#4 If everyone is happy, you aren’t doing great work…

I was doing walkthroughs with a principal this week and as we were debriefing, she said she wanted everyone to be comfortable with her presence. I suggested that she consider that what she really wanted was for them to be comfortable with the discomfort. Her presence in a classroom should cause teachers to be conscious. That consciousness usually, naturally creates discomfort. Some discomfort is generally needed for improvement, moving toward great.

That is pretty similar to teachers who raise expectations. Increasing rigor in students’ work…necessary for students to find Great Work…. unlikely to initially make students happy.

#5 Great work is not a solo act…

This week I was working with the Memorial Elementary School in Desoto County, FL. The staff is at the end of the first year of implementing vertical teams. We held a hot dog dinner to bring parents in for a presentation on why students would stay with a team of teachers as they moved from first to second grade. A slide on the power point said, “Teaching is a team sport”. Here are some benefits teachers presented:
-Know students, better and sooner
-Connect with parents
-Link grade to grade curriculum
-Expand teaching strategies

As a teacher coach,you are on the teachers’ team! Actually, when Sandy sent me the link to the Find Your Great Work site she showed she is on my team. Thanks, Sandy.

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2 Responses to “ Coaching Teachers to Great Work ”

  1. Michael Says:

    Glad you enjoyed the movie, Steve


  2. Stephen G. Barkley Says:


    I hope many of my readers get to view it. I look forward to reading your book.

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