It’s common for coaches to be pulled into quick problem solving when teachers share a problem or concern. There is much to be gained by coaching slow initially, to seek real understanding, in order to go fast later. In this podcast, Steve shares some of the reasons and models a coaching conference with a teacher who illustrates her commitment, her willingness to be vulnerable, to maximize learning opportunities for her students.
Read Mike Sturm’s article, “Seek First to Understand” here.
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Steve [Intro]: 00:00 Hello and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. Instructional coaches and leaders create the environment that supports teachers to continually imagine, grow and achieve. They model an excitement for learning that teachers in turn model for students. This podcast is dedicated to promoting the important aspects of instructional leadership. Thanks for listening.
Steve: 00:28 Coaching when a teacher presents a concern or problem. In earlier blogs and podcasts, I’ve discussed the importance of coaches going slow to go fast. The reason is to generate real understanding. Mike Sturm, writing in a blog titled, “Seek First to Understand,” reflected on his thought that this habit identified in Stephen Covey’s, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” may be the most important habit. He wrote, “the essence of this habit is a temperament that favors curiosity, open-mindedness empathy and patience, all rolled into one. In order to really seek to understand you cannot have already judged a person or situation.
Steve: 01:34 You need to develop a desire to understand, meaning a desire to see things from other’s point of view, to see their reasons and feel the way they feel.” You’ll find the link to Sturm’s blog in the lead-in to this podcast. When providing a coaching workshop, I frequently illustrate this point with the following activity. I ask participants on the workshop, how they would respond to this scenario: A fifth grade teacher tells you that she believes reading aloud is an important component of her reading workshop time, but she doesn’t use it often because students don’t listen during the reading they fidget. And they’re seldom able to respond to questions that she asked. When I asked participants to generate some of the questions they might ask this teacher, they frequently come up with a list like this: What are you choosing to read? How long are the passages?
Steve: 02:43 Where are the students seated when you read? What do you see and hear the students do it? I then share some questions that I might begin with. What benefits do you believe reading aloud offers? Which of these benefits do you think are most important to your students? Are these benefits important to all of your students are more important to some? How much do you want to invest in making read aloud lessons work effectively? Why? I asked the participants to compare their initial questions with the ones that I offer. They generally identify that my questions are asked in order to uncover an understanding of the teacher’s thinking about the read aloud strategy and her commitment to wanting it to be effective. Most of their questions are driven by a desire to problem solve quickly. In other words, going fast. If I uncovered that the teacher doesn’t understand the value of the read aloud to her students, my coaching focus should be on that rather than on fixing a problem. The teacher may not even be interested in solving the problem. Time spent on getting a strategy the teacher doesn’t value implemented, is likely a waste of both of our time. Time spent understanding going slow is what allows us to go fast later. I recently had a teacher share a concern from her classroom during a coaching workshop. I think it illustrates going slow and focusing on understanding. Listen in, see what you think. So Catherine, give me a quick little introduction to yourself and and the students you’re working with there.
Catherine: 04:47 So I teach grade two. This is my fourth year in grade two. I have a very interesting class this year where more than half are very high achievers and the other half are quite behind grade level. So they’re being supported in many ways, but the issue that I’m running into is that I have two friends in particular who are what I would characterize as defiant children. And that means that at the slightest provocation, they will go into a pout that can last for 15 minutes to two hours. And it can be something as small as coloring a window on their picture that they meant to leave white or as big as being asked to sit back into their carpet spot and refusing publicly in front of the class and getting into a power struggle in that moment.
Catherine: 05:44 What I’m really struggling with is my desire to get into power struggles with them, which I know I will lose, which is not productive for anyone. But the biggest concern I have is their loss of learning from all of the times when I must allow them to opt out. And the times when I do decide to argue the point or address the issue, the other 14 or 15 children in the class are losing out on their learning time as well. And it is a severe loss of time. The behaviors are very, very intense. And I had a child like this last year. He was a boy. This year, they are both girls. And I feel like that is also allowing that behavior to escalate within the classroom to a point where it really becomes not only a time suck, but also just a complete source of frustration for me, for them and for the other students in the class. And so I’ve really been working to find strategies that allow deescalation of those situations and me to have enough background knowledge from their families to really understand what’s going on. Both of them have very I would venture to say solitary home lives. They have working parents who are not home when they get home. They have siblings that they do not have good relationships with, and they are very fiercely independent as a result of that, but also very much adult-focused for attention.
Steve: 07:24 I want to try what I think I might be hearing as a hypothesis, but I think I’m hearing two of them. So I want to try both of them. I’m hearing a hypothesis that says you believe you have to learn a lot more about those two kids in order for you to put the program together that’s going to successfully help them.
Catherine: 07:50 That is true. And I have taken steps to address that already. So I’ve had parent meetings this week with both moms and we are gathering observational data from the counseling staff as well, to my own observational notes, which I’ve been taking. So I do feel like we’re taking positive steps in that direction.
Steve: 08:08 So you have a team that’s going to jump on that and work on that with you. Okay. And then here’s the second hypothesis I think I heard. You think you need a a band-aid in the meantime.
Catherine: 08:28 Yeah, I need a tourniquet to stop the bleeding.
Steve: 08:41 Yeah. So the tourniquet is not going to solve the problems for those two kids, but you need it.
Catherine: 08:51 Yeah. And then we’ll work on how we do the long-term solution. That makes sense to me.
Steve: 08:56 And part of a struggle that you’re dealing with is the impact that the tourniquet has on the two kids’ loss of learning while you’re putting it on because you feel it’s needed for the rest of the class.
Catherine: 09:20 Exactly right. So if I do the quick fix, they lose their learning time. If I do the not quick fix, everyone loses their learning time. So I feel caught between a rock and a hard place.
Steve: 09:32 And so as much information as you could have about what’s happening is probably helpful in you determining whether a strategy that you’re working with – I’m don’t even want to say whether it’s working is whether it’s whether it’s acceptable to you.
Catherine: 09:58 Yeah. Because there are things that I can do, but they have consequences for everyone, myself included and how I feel about my teaching at the end of the day. So there’s a lot of emotion wrapped up in the midst of it too.
Steve: 10:18 So I’m wondering if a initial observing spot for us is pre a strategy, or are you at the point where you’ve got a strategy and you’d like the observing to occur around that strategy?
Catherine: 10:37 So I’ve been trying to utilize two positive choices. You can sit with us on the carpet, or you can come sit where you’re comfortable, but you must have your eyes on the teacher. I’ve been trying to say, take a break in the safe space and use a timer two times, and then you must rejoin the class. I’ve been trying to use direct non-judgmental language around, “I see that you are frustrated. Is it time to take a break?” Or, “I see that your head is down, please put your head up and listen,” so that it’s not imbued with judgment and emotion.
Steve: 11:19 Are you attending to make the decision what you’re going to do in advance or you attending to make that decision on the spot as a as an occurrence happens?
Catherine: 11:31 Mostly on the spot.
Steve: 11:35 So I’m wondering if a starter spot would be, you pick the time that you think might be most valuable for me to be observing, paying some attention, and maybe it’s even something I do over a couple of days at the same time, or at different times so you would know, but if all I did was record, you’d let me know the two students. So I’d record what the student did, how you responded, how I saw that student respond, and how I saw the rest of the class respond. That give a starter?
Catherine: 12:16 Yeah, I think so, because I think also, they’re two different kids, right? There’s no reason that saying this to one of them is also going to work for the other. So I think having that ability to track, especially the other kids’ reaction to0 in the mix, I think is an important part of it.
Steve: 12:35 So how about if I stopped in several times – say I started on Monday and I did it several times till Friday, and we sat down Friday and I put down in front of you what I collected and we could take that into a debrief?
Catherine: 12:54 I think that’d be great. I think it would be important to vary the times of day, because my schedule has lots of specials at different times. Like I have days where I have a longer morning and I would be curious to know what kind of stamina issues are at play here too. Like, if they’ve already been learning for an hour, do they react in a different way than if they’d been learning for 40 minutes and it’s just a 40 minute contained lesson?
Steve: 13:20 So if I record the time that I did the observation, you’d be able to reflect back as to what happened prior to that time. That’d be another piece of information for you to have.
Catherine: 13:32 Yes.
Steve: 13:34 Okay. Thank you very much.
Steve: 13:37 This teacher illustrates the ultimate of professionalism in teaching. She was open to being vulnerable, to share her desires, her thinking, her frustrations, all for the purpose of providing her students with the best possible learning opportunities. As coaches, we need to do everything possible to create the environment that promotes this kind of professionalism. Adam Grant, in his book, “Think Again,” gives a wonderful explanation of the power of listening. He wrote, “The power of listening doesn’t lie just in giving people the space to reflect on their views. It’s a display of respect and an expression of care. Listening as a way of offering others our scarcest, most precious gift – our attention. Listening well is more than a matter of talking less. It’s a set of skills and asking and responding. I encourage you to keep growing your skills in seeking understanding in listening for understanding and in promoting teacher vulnerability and professionalism to maximize student learning opportunities.” Thanks for listening in.
Steve [Outro]: 15:23 Thank you for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud on iTunes and Podbean. And please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter @stevebarkley, or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com