Colleen Cruz, the Director of Innovation for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project and the author of, “Risk. Fail. Rise. A Teacher’s Guide to Learning From Mistakes,” shares insights on learning and mistakes. She identifies how leaders and coaches model their use of their mistakes for learning and points to the needed relationships that support teacher learning.
Find Colleen on Twitter: @colleen_cruz
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Steve [Intro]: 00:25 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: 00:53 Coaching teachers around their mistakes. Joining our podcast today is Coleen Cruz. She’s the director of innovation for the Teacher’s College Reading and Writing project. And she’s the author of a book titled, “Risk. Fail. Rise.,” a teacher’s guide to learning from mistakes. Now, frequent listeners to this podcast and those of you who might read my blog know that that title would definitely catch my attention and it did. So I was delighted when I touched base with Colleen and she she agreed to join us on the podcast. So Colleen, would you start by sharing a little bit about your background and how you arrived at this this focus on mistakes?
Colleen: 01:37 My background is in literacy. As you mentioned, I worked for Teacher’s College Reading and Writing project. And most of my previous work has been purely about literacy, about reading and writing. And as part of that role supporting teachers and administrators, twice a year, we do these free workshops and we do a whole day of workshops and teachers come from all over thousands of teachers. And it’s just a great time to try out new material. And one particular Saturday, I tried out a workshop title that was, “It’s all your Fault.” Five things that we’re doing in writing instruction, basically that are messing up kids. I’m sure it was a little bit better than that, but that was basically it. And I really thought that this was going to be a very small workshop and it ended up being very popular. People everywhere, you know, standing room only sort of situation.
Colleen: 02:39 And I thought, huh, that’s interesting. And when I did the workshop again, the same thing happened. And I thought, you know, what’s interesting to me is that this topic seems to really speak to people. And I decided to like, kind of dig in further about this idea of mistakes and I’m a person who really likes research. So I went straight to the research and I realized that there wasn’t a whole lot about mistakes for educators. There was a lot of research about children making mistakes, students making mistakes, but not so much about our own mistakes and our own mindsets, our own teacher mindsets about our own mistakes. And so this notion of like culture of mistakes. And I found lots of research though, in other fields like social work and medicine and scientific discovery. And that just got me really interested in like, how could we, the education profession learn from the work of other professions? Because as we know, learning is all about mistake making. We talk about it all the time, but maybe we haven’t yet had the bigger discussion about our role as educators in it. So the book is really about the mistakes we make as educators, the way that we can make those mistakes transparent to students and the way we can create cultures in our classrooms and in our schools that make mistakes welcomed and risk-taking welcome so that students can learn more.
Steve: 04:26 Is there a a common thread or insight that you found in the research in the other professions around this issue of mistakes?
Colleen: 04:39 One thread – I mean, there was many, but one of the threads that really spoke to me was when we make mistakes, I think there’s been a – when I grew up certainly, and I definitely know when I was first in the classroom, I did the same where I sort of handed the football of learning from mistakes over to the student almost like it was self guided practice. And one of the things I learned in the research that I found sort of surprising, although it shouldn’t have been is that people’s responses to your mistakes affect whether or not you are going to be willing to do that move again, take that risk again. Learn from your mistake. So like the dePaula has some writing on how, when people make mistakes and your supervisor responds to it negatively, people are less likely to want to take that risk again. They’d rather either avoid doing that activity or never do it in front of you again.
Steve: 05:52 Hide the mistake.
Colleen: 05:53 Yeah. Hide the mistake or just avoid the mistake. And when a lot of this was in medicine, which is interesting. There was a story from a surgical professor who would talk about how, how surgeons respond to, you know, their medical students while they’re in surgery. You know, if they responded, of course, you know, we’ve got life and death on the line, but if the student made a mistake and the surgeon responded in a way that was calm and you know, still you’re putting the patient’s life first, but you’re not responding in a punitive way or in a judging way, but rather a teaching way. The positive response, not only does it make the student want to try this again, but it also doesn’t harm the relationship and the negative response harms the relationship makes the student less likely to want to learn and could actually affect the kid or the adult’s ability to do whatever this task is going forward.
Colleen: 07:03 And I was surprised by that and also horrified because I’ve definitely responded harshly to people’s mistakes. I think all of us have. But I had never thought of my role in response to mistakes to somebody’s learning. And I think for coaches and for administrators, I think that’s, you know, it’s easy for us to think about what that looks like in an adult child teaching relationship, but I think also as people who support other people you know, when somebody makes a mistake in our presence, are we a soft place to land? Are we like, they’re almost happy they made that mistake in front of us because they know they’ll gain more insights from it? Or is it the kind of situation where they’re not going to take risks in front of us because the price is too high.
Steve: 07:55 Talk a little bit about the choice of using the three words into the title of your book, risk, fail, rise.
Colleen: 08:04 Well, it’s a funny story actually. Originally, the book had many working titles. One of them was, “Wrongology.” One of them was, “It’s All Your Fault” and we just sort of felt – well not we, I would say the publisher sort of felt like that’s not going to sell, which, you know, it’s not exactly the feel-good title. And tossing around ideas, I think it really is probably a more accurate description of what the book is about, is that when we take risks, we are going to fail. Like, that is just the way it’s going to go. But it’s in that failure and I honestly believe it’s through that failure. I don’t really think we can rise without the failure. And so it’s that – you know, I’m a writing workshop person, I believe in writing process and cycles.
Colleen: 09:10 And I think our cycle of learning as humans is we learn when we take risks, but we can only learn if we fail. And I do think that when I look at things that come easy, we very rarely learn from those. Like those moments where we just get it the first time, there’s a way that that just becomes taken for granted. So the failure in a way is almost like a thumbtack to our learning experiences. That when we take a risk and fail, there’s so much information we get, there’s so many insights we get into ourselves and into how the world works, that it makes it ultimately possible for us to rise.
Steve: 09:59 I like the idea of a thumbtack. Kind of the opposite of burring, your mistake, huh?
Colleen: 10:05 Yeah. Like if we, you know – my boss, I work for Lucy Calkins who is leader of the Reading and Writing Project. And I heard her once say that, like, what makes us, who we are is not our successes. Everybody has, you know, whatever success you have, somebody else has that same success. What makes us who we are is our failures. And that really speaks to me. I think each of our failures are unique. And I think that, yeah, they become a way for us to Mark a photograph of a moment in our life. And even if we look at our failures in our life, the failures that I had at 25 are not the same failures I had at 45. Like, I learned different things and there are things that I will never do again, because the failure was such that I really learned that lesson. And then there’s times where I fail and I get an insight into, I think it’s a window into how I think the world works. Like, what did I think was gonna happen? And the failure shows me what I thought was going to happen. We can’t really see our own theories of the world working until we fail.
Steve: 11:28 There’s a short video clip from Dylan William that I’ve played frequently for for folks and he makes the statement that as a teacher, we fail all the time. And if we aren’t failing, we’re just not paying attention.
Colleen: 11:52 That’s 100% accurate. Yes.
Steve: 11:52 And so the value of you know, being open and vulnerable in a coaching situation where somebody helps us, not miss that failure, you know, kind of pull our attention back to it is a powerful moment. I was going through my mind as I was listening to you describe that.
Colleen: 12:18 Yeah, exactly. You’re being a witness, right? Like you’re a witness to somebody else’s failure and that there’s a power in being that witness and us taking that moment to say, oh my gosh, I’m witnessing this failure. What role am I going to play in it?
Steve: 12:33 Well, and the power of us as educators sharing that with each other because I can also learn from your failure. So you’re willing to make yourself vulnerable. Not only does that put us in a position where you can learn from that, but you know, if you think about teachers in a professional learning community, you know, taking an instructional plan that you carried out that didn’t work and be able to lay it down in front of a team of five and do a biopsy on it can really have everybody walk away having learned from it.
Colleen: 13:11 Yeah. I don’t think there’s many things that have taught me more than watching somebody who I respect and admire make a mistake and then talk it through and allow me to be a part of that conversation. I think it’s incredibly valuable.
Steve: 13:29 So thinking about instructional coaches and administrators who take on that instructional coaching role, what are some of the things that we need to have in mind that that assist teachers in learning learning from mistakes?
Colleen: 13:51 I mean, goodness, there’s a lot. But I would say one is that the relationship is crucial. That in order – I would put that at the – I wouldn’t even think about curriculum development, methods, instruction, or anything like that until I feel like I’ve started to make a connection. And I would as a coach and as an administrator, and this is true in my practice as a staff developer, I take the risks first. I think it’s important for me to be the one who’s butt is on the line. And that’s part of trust-building, but it’s also part of demonstrating how I want our relationship to go, that we’re going to fail in front of each other, and we’re going to give each other feedback and help each other grow. And I think seeing people as people taking those one or two minutes to check in to see how each other is doing ask about each other’s cat or kids or whatever trip when we’re not in a pandemic anymore.
Colleen: 15:04 But checking in on each other is important. But I also think that besides the relationship aspect, I think all of us have got to be better at voicing over our mistakes and making transparent and owning them and talking them through. So if we’re working with a teacher and we make a mistake, that’s a wonderful opportunity for us to demonstrate the way we’d like it to go when they make a mistake. And I own that this is a hard habit. We’re so used to taking a defensive posture. But I think it’s much more powerful for the teachers that we are serving to say, oh, goodness, that book I recommended was like really, really offensive and I really made a mistake recommending that. And you know, I should have read through the whole book and I didn’t, I was in a rush, I just read the cover. And, you know, sometimes I make mistakes because I’m rushing it, something that I’m trying to work on.
Colleen: 16:14 Like just that kind of level of conversation. And you know, I talk about this in the book. There’s a magician called Steve Cohen who’s a millionaire’s magician is what his nickname is. And he talks about the one way that magicians build relationships with audiences is to intentionally make mistakes because, you know, at the beginning of a magic show, the whole goal of the audience is to like catch the magician. But as soon as they make a mistake, you kind of feel bad for them and you start to root for them almost. And so that’s another thought about this, is that when we make mistakes, we also, the teachers that we’re trying to serve are going to want to root for us. They’re going to go from thinking oh, who does this person think they are like coming in and showing me to realizing that we are truly human and that we’re willing to make mistakes.
Steve: 17:15 I like your term there of rooting for you. When you go back to describing the critical element of relationship what’s present in that relationship then, you know, the reason that I’m shining the light on the mistake that you made is because I’m rooting for you. I’m not finding fault, I’m not trying to trip you up. Your success is critical and important to me and that’s the role I have in helping you to see the mistake.
Colleen: 17:56 Yeah. And, you know, and don’t, we all perform better in front of people who we know are rooting for us? Like, we just feel like, I mean, I have friends that when something good happens to me, they’re the first person that I want to share with. And they’re also when something bad happens to me, they’re the first person I want to share it with. And I think the role of coaches and administrators, if we really want to create a relationship, that’s who we want to be. We want to be the people in the teachers that we serve their lives, where they they’re excited to share when that kid does this amazing thing or that if they screwed up, they know that we’re going to be a safe place to land and help them get back up again.
Steve: 18:49 You’re putting a smile on my face and it just put this big aha on my mind. Right now, my wife is a school counselor and we’re here in Switzerland so she’s been in school every day. And this is her first year of being a school counselor after having been a teacher and a school administrator for for 20 plus years.
Colleen: 19:20 Wow.
Steve: 19:20 And I’m smiling because when she gets home every evening, I never know which discussion we’re going to have, which could be the greatest success she had today or the biggest mistake she had today. But either one, she can’t wait to talk about it.
Colleen: 19:42 Yeah, yeah, exactly.
Steve: 19:47 There’s probably nobody else in her . right now that she can have that conversation with. You know, it’s not the one you’re ready as a first year person there to walk in and have with the principal yet or a teacher yet. But when she gets home and very often it’s both. I get one of each. I wish you could have seen, and it’s this great moment that happened with the kid and, “oh my God, that I blow this one.” And then she goes through that reflective process of figuring it out.
Colleen: 20:19 And I love that you’re talking about this because I think a lot of times we think about who are the people that we turn to in those moments, like, who do we want to share with, but I don’t think we often think about the role of that person we’re picturing and how can we be that person for more people.
Steve: 20:38 Bingo. So, yeah, as a coach in a school, I want people to have that same sense that my wife has, knowing that this is somebody who wants to hear that story. Either way, both stories. So as a coach and a school leader, the more I can convince teachers I want to hear those stories, but both kinds.
Colleen: 21:02 Exactly.
Steve: 21:02 Well, Colleen, to wrap up, I’m wondering if there’s an insight that that’s come out of your research and the work on this book that
that I haven’t hit yet in my questions that you might want to share.
Colleen: 21:15 I think one big thing that I talk about in the book that I think is important is this idea of a Thomason, which is a structure that we put into place that is maintained and useless. And it makes – we take a mistake and we build like a structure or a scaffold to support it. And I think that education – and Thomason, by the way, is an architectural term and I do get into it in detail in the book. But the big point of Thomasons is that often in education, in particular, it’s in all professions, but I feel like I see it more often in education, we make a mistake and rather than simply correcting the mistake or not repeating the mistake, we sometimes double down on the mistake. So, you know, we realize I’ll just use an example. We realize that when we grade things, students get more interested in the grade and less interested in the learning.
Colleen: 22:31 And so they take less risks because they want to get the grade. And they’re only concerned about the points and not about the learning. And we see that and we go, oh, that’s terrible. So then we raise the stakes on the grade rather than do away with, and we like make honor roll and give awards and hold rallies.
Steve: 22:54 [laughter] Great example.
Colleen: 22:54 And I think as coaches and as administrators, there’s a lot of that. Like, I think that we have – we see like, oh, that meeting with, you know, grade five didn’t go well. Well, let me do that exactly the same way and make it mandatory next time. Like, what?
Steve: 23:20 Mandatory is the word was going through my mind as I was listening to you.
Colleen: 23:23 [laughter]
Steve: 23:23 That’s the way to cover my mistake.
Colleen: 23:25 Yes, we make it mandatory or we make it – we’re going to record it and if you can’t make it, it has to be on Zoom or we like we screw up and then we decide to make it worse and make it more permanent.
Steve: 23:40 That’s a great example.
Colleen: 23:40 And so I feel like you know, there’s many different ways we can respond to mistakes, but I think people who are in positions of coaching and being an administrator, we have to look really closely at our mistakes. We have to be honest about our mistakes and we have to do this move of like pausing before we double down on our mistakes and ask ourselves if the right choice is to codify it and make it even bigger, or is the right choice to maybe press pause and either dismantle it or revise or refine. And the only way to do that really is to be very honest and to have a good relationship with the people that we serve so that they can give us feedback on those mistakes rather than us making them more permanent.
Steve: 24:41 Am I hearing apology as a critical step here?
Colleen: 24:45 Oh yeah. I mean, I talk a lot about apologies and I think that apologies are important for so many reasons, not the least of which is that I think it’s very difficult to heal in a relationship until there’s an apology. But I think the apology is also part of the process for the person who has made the mistake and to focus on – and this is another thing that coaches and administrators we can struggle with is this notion of focusing on our intent and not our impact. And we will just say, “well, I didn’t mean to embarrass you in front of your students,” or “I didn’t mean to make you feel bad.” And of course, unless you’re like, Jabba the Hutt, like you’re not, you’re not intending, you’re not sadistic. The intent can be left on the field. Like, instead we should be looking at and truly apologizing for our impact and and that’s the first step. And I honestly think if we make a mistake and we immediately apologize, or as soon as we can apologize, we’re much less likely to involve ourselves in a Thomason and make that mistake codified.
Steve: 26:05 Well Colleen, thank you so much. Would you just share a little bit with folks about the easiest way for them to connect with you and find out more information about your book?
Colleen: 26:15 Yes, definitely. So probably the easiest way to connect with me because you can get all my information there is, I’m on Twitter @colleen_cruz. You can also – and that connects to my websites and different things, but you could also go directly to my website, which is my name, colleencruz.com. I’m really original there. And so those are probably the two easiest, best ways to get ahold of me. And I’m pretty regularly around doing little, especially now in Zoom land events and things like that so we can also catch up there. And then, this book is on heinemann.com, So that’s another, another place to find me and some of my books. Yeah.
Steve [Outro]: 27:14 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.