In this week’s episode of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast, Steve ponders “Coaching Teachers: the Unaware, the Starting, the Developing, & the Unwilling ”.
Listen as Steve discusses the different types of responses teachers can have to the necessary changes needed for student learning.
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Steve Barkley: Hello, and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud Podcast. For the last 35 years, I’ve had the opportunity to learn with educators at all levels, both nationally and internationally. In each of the coming episodes, I’ll explore my thoughts, and my learning on a variety of topics connected to teaching, learning, and leading. Thanks for listening in.
Coaching teachers, the unaware, the starting, the developing, and the unwilling.
Whenever I’m working with instructional coaches and school leaders, and we work through a backwards planning model from changes we’re looking to gain in student achievement to the learning production behaviors students need to engage in to cause the learning. Then to the teacher behaviors and actions that are most likely to produce the desired student behaviors.
We then get to the leadership behaviors, and identifying what role, what activities leaders need to engage in to initiate, and support the changes that teachers need to make. One of the ways that I approach this with folks is to look at labeling a teacher’s response to the necessary change. The labels that I pose are that a teacher could be unaware, the teacher could be getting ready to change.
The teacher could be starting a change, the teacher could be a developing, and lastly, there are some teachers who might be unwilling. As we work through this explanation in the podcast, please keep in mind that I’m considering the teacher’s response to the individual, or single change that leadership is looking to implement in the school. It’s not an overall statement about a teacher.
You may have a teacher who is developing on several fronts, but in relationship to one change that the school is implementing, the teacher falls more likely in the unwilling category.
Let’s work through these one at a time. Let’s start with the unaware teacher. The unaware teacher might bear the label of unconsciously unskilled. In other words, the teacher doesn’t know what it is that he or she doesn’t know.
In this case, the job of the coach or leader is to create the opportunities that would allow the teacher to develop awareness. As I think about what that might mean, it could be accomplished by pure coaching that cause teachers to do observations in other teachers’ classrooms. That provides an opportunity for a teacher to see students from his or her own classroom in another classroom, and recognize that perhaps a level of participation, and engagement that the teacher is not achieving in his or her own classroom.
It may be going to a PLC meeting, and looking at samples of student work, and realizing that other teachers in the PLC are gaining a deeper or higher level of student performance than I am. That raises my awareness. I’m thinking of an instance where I was working at an international school to do some training and coaching, and I had asked for a volunteer in advance to allow me to do a pre-observation. Take a look at a video from his or her classroom, and then a post-conference. When I arrived and I met the teacher who volunteered, I asked why he had volunteered. He told me he couldn’t miss this opportunity because recently when the grade level looked at math assessment results, he realized his students were not achieving at the level of the other teachers. He now became consciously unskilled. He knew there was something he didn’t know, and that caused him to open up and be vulnerable to coaching.
Think about the ways that you give teachers the opportunity to become aware of where they may need to make changes in providing for student learning. The next teacher response I identify as getting ready. When I’m working in the south, I call it teachers who are fixing. They are fixing to start differentiating, or they are fixing to do more student-directed learning.
The getting ready teacher is aware of a need to bring about a change in teaching and learning in their classroom, but they aren’t at the stage of taking action. Whenever I ask participants in my workshop, “What do you think teachers at each of these levels need?” The frequent response they give to most of them is, “Well, they need support.” That’s a good answer all the way across the board, all teachers need the coach’s support.
What is the support that the getting ready teacher needs? I label it two ways. One is a safe environment, and then the second, I call a polite kick in the pants. I use that phrase as it’s that push, it’s that nudge that gets a teacher into action when he or she isn’t quite ready to go there on their own.
As an example, I’m working with a teacher who shares that she realizes there’s a need to differentiate the centers that she has in her classroom because of the difference in student skill levels, but quickly adds that that takes a lot of time. As a coach, I’d call that teacher getting ready. My response to that teacher might be, “It does take time. How about this, I will take your morning block tomorrow.
Figure I’ll take the kids from the morning till lunchtime. You take that three hours, and see how many of your centers you could build some differentiation into. Then we can sit back and see the impact that that differentiation has, and then we can explore other ways to go about it.” If the teacher jumps at the opportunity, then they are engaged, and I’ve moved them to starting.
If the teacher is hesitant, then it tells me that it’s probably not really time. It may be not knowing how. That response from the teacher now opens up another direction, another way of support that the coach could step in.
I call the next group starting. These are teachers who have jumped into the change. They are perhaps implementing a new technology. They are working with a new instructional strategy, perhaps implementing a problem-based learning activity in their classroom for the first time. The support that these teachers most often need is empathy. I mean that from the vantage point that these teachers are likely dealing with some things not going well in their classrooms.
They have got into what we call in staff development, the learning dip. As the teacher takes that new strategy or technique into their classroom, there’s a drop in teacher effectiveness. This is a spot where a lot of teachers really need a coaching support, because when the teacher hits that drop in their effectiveness, the tendency is to want to stop the new thing, stop the change, and go back to their old– and this is really important, more effective behavior.
What I was doing before I implemented this new strategy was actually more successful when I’m the learning dip. It takes the support from my coach to keep me working at it long enough in order to begin to see the payoff as the teacher starts to come up out of that learning dip.
Frequently, when you’re coaching teachers who are starting, your job as a coach is to observe the teacher, and provide the teacher positive feedback that they are implementing the change correctly. The reason that’s so important is initially, the change won’t get the result in student behavior. If I’m increasing my pause time in order to increase student critical thinking, when I first begin to implement my pause time, I may get confused students.
I may get students quickly changing their answers. As a teacher, the feedback I’m getting from watching the kids might scare me off of the strategy, so the coach who is providing that positive reinforcement that, “You have got the correct teacher behavior. I’m supporting that, stay with it.” I label the next group as developing. These are teachers who have turned the corner at the bottom of that learning dip.
They are beginning to see the payoff for the change that they have implemented. I find that the important role for the coach at this point is to shift the focus from observing and giving feedback on the teacher behavior to observing and giving feedback on the student behavior. The motivation for the developing teacher to continue and put the effort into the change they are making is the fact that it is having its payoff with changes in student.
The coach who is visiting collaborative groups that the teacher isn’t observing, and picking up some a depth of student conversation, some curiosity being raised on the part of students, the helpful collaboration that the teacher is desiring, picking up those things that are happening with students that the teacher might be missing, and pointing those out with some specificity to the teacher is an important coaching focus.
Now, the most difficult challenge for people to be facing is the unwilling teacher. This is the teacher who is aware that a change that moves school closer to its vision, a change that would increase more personalization, and learning to students is out there. The teacher knows it’s not happening in their classroom, and they are saying that they are unwilling to invest the effort necessary to make the change.
A starter for me when I’m working with coaches and administrators together, I begin with the statement that coaches don’t work with the unwilling teacher. I get some quick smiles around the audience from coaches when I make that statement. I suggest, if your principal says, “I need you to go work with Mrs. Unwilling,” as a coach, you can look at your principal and say, “I’d like to help you, but Steve Barkley said we’re not supposed to.”
It’s probably not good for your instructional coaching career. I want to play that piece out a little bit with a role-play for you. If I’m an instructional coach, and my principal asked me to work with an unwilling teacher, I’d look at the principal and say, “I get it. I understand. Here’s my first question, does the teacher know what you want him or her to do?” Now, if the principal suggests that he hasn’t informed the teacher, then I ask the conversation between coach and principal to be that the coach says, “I’m ready to get started as soon as you inform the teacher.” That give and take, back and forth between the coach and principal is critical.
The coach now getting the response from the principle that she has spelled out very clearly and specifically to the teacher the changes that are required, as a coach, I’m now ready to go to the unwilling teacher and say, “I understand that the principal is requesting that you and I work together.” The coach would then ask the teacher, “Are you clear on what the principal wants you to do?”
Should the teacher say, “No,” as a coach, I might respond with, “Well, would you like to go back and check with her, or would you like me to go with you?” Again, I get smiles when I said that in the audience, but if the teacher were to look at the coach and say, “I’d like you to go with me,” that could be the best spot to be in. Where the three of you get a very clear picture of the change that the principal is requesting– perhaps, requiring the teacher to make.
Then there’s one more question to ask. When you have got clarity that the teacher knows what administration is requiring as a change, the next question is, “Are you planning to do it?” Now, if the teacher gives you a yes to that response, I’d suggest the teacher has moved out of that category of unwilling, and the coach should be ready to jump in and put a plan together.
Should the teacher confide in the coach that she has no intention of implementing the required change, it’s necessary that the coach very respectfully say to the teacher, “I understand. Do you want to inform the administration, or would you like me to?” I mean that in a very non-threatening way. For coaches to be sent to work with unwilling teachers when an administration hasn’t laid out the requirement for change can almost be considered a coach abuse.
An unwilling teacher can chew up a remarkable amount of a coach’s time, energy, and especially emotional energy, and sometimes, use the coach and their time with the coach as a way of avoiding the administrators supervisory and evaluative functions. The good news is the number of unwilling teachers is very small.
When a coach makes a breakthrough with an unwilling teacher by being structured and specific at the onset, that person successfully implementing a change that leads to increased student learning, can have a big payoff for that teacher, and also, frequently create a strong coach-teacher future partnership.
As you look at your work as a coach– and this also includes administrators who are seeing the instructional leadership as part of their extended administrative tasks to provide coaching to teachers, think about how you differentiate your behaviors, and the kind of feedback that you provide teachers based on where they are in their learning process. Thanks for listening.
Steve: Thanks for listening folks. I’d love 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
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