Sherry St. Clair, the author of Coaching Redefined, shares five focus points for school leaders to develop environments and relationships that build social and emotional wellness. Examine how a listening tour might be a starting point.
Get in touch with Sherry: Sherry@reflecttolearn.com
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Steve [Intro]: 00:25 Hello and welcome to the Steve Barkley ponders out loud podcast for over three decades. I’ve had the opportunity to learn with educators at all levels, both nationally and internationally. I invite you to listen as I explore my thoughts and learning on a variety of topics connected to teaching, learning, and leading with some of the best and brightest educators from around the globe. Thanks for listening in.
Steve: 00:49 Supporting teachers’ social emotional needs with Sherry St. Clair. Today, my guest is Sherry St. Clair. She’s the author of “Coaching Redefined,” a guide to leading meaningful instructional coaching. Sherry is an experienced instructional coach and school administrator and I recently had the opportunity to join her on a panel at Jim Knight’s Teaching, Learning, Coaching conference. I also got a chance to complete the virtual workshop session that she provided there that looked at the same topic that we have here today and so I had asked Sherry to join us. So, welcome Sherry.
Sherry : 01:45 Thank you for having me. It’s a great pleasure to be here. I enjoyed our panel discussion at Jim Knight’s conference and really look forward to today as well.
Steve: 01:54 Great. Well, Sherry, I know that looking at teachers’ social emotional needs was a topic that you were engaged in prior to the COVID pandemic. So, can you talk a little bit about what raised that to the surface and made it important for you?
Sherry : 02:17 Sure, yes. You know, for me as a coach, to school leaders and teachers, it’s always important for me to be very well grounded in research, but also be well grounded in sitting down with teachers and administrators and just assessing some of those soft skills that may not may or may not show up in research. And one of the things that I was noticing is an increased level of stress on teachers and administrators. I think one of the biggest aha moments for me was sitting in a group at a conference, you know, prior to COVID, this large group of administrators and the speaker asked how many of you have dealt with a student committing suicide in your school this year? And Steve, there was barely a table that didn’t have a hand raised during that time. That to me just gave me chills because that’s some – you know, there’s a weight to that, that we carry when our students are struggling.
Sherry : 03:33 And, you know, when students commit suicide, they’re struggling. So there was that piece, there was the piece of just talking to teachers and teachers saying how much more can we handle? And there’s the piece of teachers not going into the profession at the level they did before and leaving the profession and an increased rate. All these things told me that we have some work to do that is causing these things in our society to happen. If you look at the research, focusing on social-emotional needs of our teachers can lessen the burnout, increase job satisfaction and improve student teacher relationships. And then if you look at John Hattie’s research on what that means to student learning it just, the pieces just started lining up for me that this was a piece that we have to pay more attention to in our coaching,
Steve: 04:37 A strong ripple effect.
Sherry : 04:40 Right, right. You know, we talk about in leadership, getting to the root cause of things. And sometimes it’s asking those five, why questions. Why is this happening? Why is this happening? And that, for me, it was just what I kept asking myself in my mind is that this is off kilter. We have to fix this piece, or we have to try to fix this piece in our society. And so, that’s really where it came from is just paying attention to those that I was talking to and then watching the data and knowing that it wasn’t headed in the right direction. And then of course, when COVID hit, and all of that stress comes and know both teachers and administrators are probably on plan Z at this point. It’s just even more important now.
Steve: 05:33 When I had the chance to read your read your book, you talk about coaches getting started with a listening tour. And it struck me that as you know, I was just on today with with a district that is in their first conversations of, are they gonna start up hybrid at the end of this month or whether it’s going to be put off. So I’m thinking whenever those startup times are, or if the startup is that we’re staying virtual, this idea of a listing tour fits in now wherever coaches are at with the teachers and the administrators at their school. So wanna share a little bit about the listening tour?
Sherry : 06:23 Sure. So a listening tour is simply a way of hearing from all of your stakeholders. So it is whether it be that the school administrator, or if the school has an instructional coach, either of those can lead this. And it’s just a matter of sitting down with those groups of stakeholders and finding out what they feel about the teaching and learning that’s happening in the school. So those, the questions that are put in coaching redefined, are very centered around how those individuals feel about the teaching and learning has happened in the school. And the leaders, whether they be the administrators or the coaches will sit down with teachers, students, parents, and the business community and just ask them how they feel about what is occurring. I think it’s important to do this because not only does it tell the stakeholders, your thoughts are important to me, but every time leaders do this, things surface that they really don’t expect. Both in what people tell them and what people do not tell them. You know, there’s one piece of communication is what we say. Another piece of communication is what they hear, what they feel. And we have to be in tune with both of those. So a listening tour really gives those school leaders a way to hear from those stakeholders so that they know that they’re making the best decisions for their students.
Steve: 08:06 I’m pondering your thought about what wasn’t said. So, you know, if I’m out there during that tour and I know that certain things are present, but people choose not to bring them up, I’d have to begin to ponder what the message behind that is.
Sherry : 08:26 Right.
Steve: 08:26 And the other thought was going through my head – I’m a big Margaret Wheatley fan and Wheatley talks a lot about the need for information to flow through the system. And so your listening tour sounds a great strategy for getting that that flow of information that we need.
Sherry : 08:48 Yes. That flow of information. And then also to make sure what you think you’re saying is what they’re hearing. You know, you might think that your school is really focused in one area, but if you sit and you talk to those students or the business meeting your parents and they’ve never heard of it, or they don’t mention it at all, then it’s not quite as embedded as you are thinking that it is. So all those things are very important for a leader to keep in mind.
Steve: 09:22 You’re bringing a story back to me of a listening tour that I did in a district where the central office person, staff person that I was working with, filled me in on these couple of important things that were happening. And as I went out to the buildings and started talking to people, nobody brought them up. So I got the sense that that poor district leader was getting the exact message that every district meeting that he or she wanted to get as feedback from people but what was really happening after the people left the meeting wasn’t following through. So Sherry, in the workshop that you did, you addressed five different areas that were important for coaches and leaders to be considering. And so what I’d like to do is just kind of play each of them out to you and ask you to give us a little bit of defining of that area so that the listeners can walk away and see if there’s something off this list that makes sense for them to be paying some extra attention to right now.
Steve: 10:32 So the first one that you had talked about was accepting stress.
Sherry : 10:38 Right. So, I think that it is important for us as leaders to acknowledge that right now is a stressful time and on our whole
society, not just teachers, not just leaders, but I think in our whole society just with what is happening around COVID and think that will be the case for quite some time because of the ripple effect. But we can’t go in to our learning environments right now and treat it the same way we did prior to COVID and just ignore that teachers are trying to juggle being parents and teaching online and managing every aspect of – sometimes we’re teaching both ways, online and face to face at the same time. There is a different level of stress that goes along with that. Any leader in this school needs to pay attention to the level of stress that they are taking on as well.
Sherry : 11:45 It’s just different, Steve. You know, we can look at the research along with cognition and what stress does to our ability to remember and take one new initiatives and see the impact of stress and you just can’t ignore the fact that stress does cause us to be able to learn or not learn in different ways. So the idea of accepting stress means that we’re not going to try to lead the same way that we led prior to COVID. We’re going to understand that our society, our communities, our schools, our parents, teachers are under a different kind of stress and we have to take that into account in the new initiatives we bring up, the way that we coach, the way that we lead in our schools.
Steve: 12:50 The second one that you labeled for us was normalizing self care.
Sherry : 12:56 Right. So, self care is one of those areas where sometimes in education, we make it as an extra if we get time to take care of ourselves. And the idea of normalizing self care is giving your staff permission and spaces to where you show that that truly is important. I had the privilege of working on a project with a successful practices network, and they were working in connection with ASA. And our goal was to go out and find the most innovative school districts in the country and look at what they were doing. And one of the patterns that I saw in that work was schools would set up extra events for their teachers that really didn’t have anything to do directly with teaching in the classroom, such as yoga classes, such as catered meals, such as sponsored book clubs that were not just related to education. And, you know, these things model self care. They model that we expect you not to spend a hundred percent of your life inside the school because we know that’s going to lead to burnout. We realize that you need to take care of yourself. And so that’s the idea around self care. We know that if we can help educators understand that we, the leaders in the school value you taking care of yourself, we’re investing in you as a human and knowing that it’s going to lead to a place of longevity in your career.
Steve: 14:58 I like it. The third one that you had mentioned was modeling compassion. And I found early on, in the process last spring, that teachers shared with me the empathy and compassion they were finding from their administrators and how they valued it. And I think teachers were sharing stories with me of how they had compassion for their students. And I locked early on to thinking, boy, I sure hope we don’t lose that when we open the school doors back up. So how did you see that modeling compassion fitting in?
Sherry : 15:46 Yeah, so I I’m in the same boat as you. I hope we don’t lose that as we get back to whatever it looks like after COVID because it is an important piece. I think that again, you know, that the soft skills of coaching tell you it’s important because we see that different way that someone that we’re coaching responds, but also the research behind that shows that if we approach somebody with compassion, that their stress level actually decreases and they can better hear what we have to say. And that lead to a much more meaningful conversation about student learning in classrooms. So the research that is there that supports it, compassion is not always the thing that we have prior to COVID connected with a strong leader, but it has always been connected with a strong leader too.
Sherry : 16:51 We just haven’t really talked about it. So I think as leaders, we can go forth being a good compassionate leader by modeling
it with our teachers, but also ensuring that our teachers are modeling it with our students as well. You know, you talked about your school is making a decision of whether to go to hybrid or I think you said full virtual or face to face. You know, this is also stressful for our students. You know, I’ve got a child entering high school this year who – that’s their first experience with high school is being in a virtual classroom and ninth grade is a hard transition year. Trying to do it virtually is extra hard and I just am thankful for his teachers who have been compassionate with them as he tries to learn and understanding that he can’t do the same thing he would do in a face to face classroom the same way in the virtual classroom. So I think it goes both ways, both with people who are leading teachers and teachers who are leading students, that we have to understand the importance of that compassion. Now that doesn’t mean that we don’t move forward with trying to help teachers perfect their craft and learn. It doesn’t mean professional learning stops, but it means that we handle it in a different way maybe than we did before this.
Steve: 18:43 The fourth item that you had had discussed was arranging collaborative spaces.
Sherry : 18:51 So I think this is another one where it was important before COVID. And I think we have seen the importance of this amplified through COVID in terms of when we are together as humans – I mean, we’re social beings and we build off of each other’s ideas. We learn empathy and compassion by sitting and talking and truly listening to each other and learning from each other. And so the idea of arranging those collaborative spaces is just that we know this is important for society. We know this is important for professional learning. We know this is important for our teachers to grow towards each other. And so, however we have to do that, we need to make sure that we are continuing to do that so that teachers can continue to communicate with each other. And same for students. They need that as well in the school, but for this conversation, it goes more towards the leaders, that the teachers need that collaborative space.
Sherry : 20:09 So, you know, I’m thankful that we have tools like zoom and Google meet for that right now. We have to understand that they’re not the same as those face to face tools, but they might be as good as we can get for those collaborative spaces. But just don’t give up on those collaborative spaces. Remember as a school leader during this time, we’re still wanting to create an environment where teachers are growing towards each other and growing towards that family of learners, I call it that learning organization in a school. And in order to do that, we have to have those collaborative spaces. So it might be that it’s an outdoor space right now, it might be indoors with masks, you know, six feet apart or whatever. The safety protocol is at that time, that just don’t give up on the idea that we need that.
Steve: 21:06 As I’m listening to you, one is jumping in my head of – I was just facilitating a meeting with a school social-emotional team. They have that role for their school and their school is still virtual, but they’ve planned for the faculty to take part in a fundraising walk-a-thon in the in the next week or so as actually the first faculty activity. So we can come with masks on and we can be distant, but we can still all wear the school shirt and walk the walk the fundraiser walk together. And as I was listening to you, I could just sense where that activity is a start of moving people along that along that process.
Sherry : 22:01 Absolutely. And, you know, I’m so thankful for social media’s ability to have a positive impact there, you know, there’s things that social media has had a negative impact on our world. But for this, it can have a positive impact if we allow it to. You know, Steve, and I think I told you prior to this conversation about getting in front of an audience, my first audience after you know, as we’re transitioning back to the face to face, and I almost came to tears. I mean, we had all safety protocols in place, it’s a big conference room that tables are far apart, masks on. And so it’s not the same as it was prior to COVID, but I found myself getting very emotional just to be around other people and laughing and talking. And I’m thinking, I mean, I know the research about this, but there is an element of us being together as people that I just look forward to that.
Steve: 23:12 Sherry, the last one that you had pointed out catches my attention as well. And that was leading through positives. How are you defining that?
Sherry : 23:23 So, first of all, I want to make this point because I know there is some research on the other side of this too. This is an area that I’m spending quite a bit of time reading and researching right now, because I believe so strongly in it. Leading through positives does not mean that we ignore all the negative things that are happening in a school. I think that when you talk about leading through positivity, sometimes that’s the pushback you get. It doesn’t mean that you don’t see them as a leader, it means that you can see the negative areas and know where to place them in the pyramid of importance so that you know how to grow your organization through their strengths. So if you’re going to grow your organization through your strengths, and whether that be the teachers or the teachers together, or teachers growing students, you have to be able to see those positive elements and lead through positivity.
Sherry : 24:30 If I know that someone else can see my strengths, it just motivates me. And that’s what the research also shows, that we are motivated by people who believe in us. So, you know, I use the example sometimes in my workshops of how I was writing for two different organizations and one organization was paying me more than the second organization but the second organization was so positive, Steve, I would have done it for free.
Steve: 25:08 [laughter]
Sherry : 25:08 The first organization, anytime that I would send something in, it was, “what have you thought about this? Have you thought
about this? Have you thought?” And I was like, “when do I get it right?” And I just use that as an example that teachers feel the same way. If somebody comes into their classroom and they can never say anything positive, or you can’t see my strengths at all, what chance do I have to be successful and students the same way? So that’s the idea of positivity is just, it’s not that you can’t see what’s not working, but you can take something that’s working and know that if you build on those unique gifts and talents, then you are going to impact the other.
Steve: 25:56 I’m smiling as I’m listening to you. I’m recalling early in my coaching career, I was modeling an observation and post-conference with a new teacher. And so I had a videotaped lesson of the teachers and I watched the video and then I role played what my coaching conference would be. And somebody said to me, when, as I wrapped it up, how did you find so many positive things to say? And I said, well, I spent 99% of my time looking for them. You know, what the new teacher could do to improve it, didn’t take me about two or three moments to find that. And so I stopped looking for anything more for the teacher to work on, and I spent all the time focused on what were those positive things there that we could that we could build off of.
Steve: 26:51 And I just see that powering into the words that you laid out there, that once you could recognize those positive things in a person, and then you could show them that area of growth, they were ready to jump and go to work on it. Well, Sherry, I really appreciate the time you’ve shared with us today and your thoughts. I’m wondering if there’s anything that comes to mind as a last word that you’d like to put out there for school leaders and instructional coaches to especially consider as they’re doing their work, which is always important, but I think has gotten multiplied in its importance right now.
Sherry : 27:39 Well, you know, Steve, you know this from reading my book, I think that my work is around instructional leadership, whether it be with coaches in the schools or the administrators or the system leaders and I focus on three main areas. I think there’s three threads that make strong instructional leaders. It is knowing what content to coach, when to coach it being well versed in that and the research goes around it, developing strong leadership skills and relationships, and that relationship piece I talk about first, because I don’t think you can get to the other pieces if you don’t have the strong relationships, which is why I talk about the listening tour in the initial stages of my book. So I guess the final piece that I would say to leaders here is, right now, that relationship piece is just really critical. And if it is taking the majority of your time to make sure that that is strong and a strong foundational piece, I think that’s time well spent because without that piece, we are left with a very unstable structure to really move forward in the area of instructional growth.
Steve: 29:06 Well said, well said. So thanks again, Sherry. We will we’ll put your contact information, your website and email in the lead-in into this podcast so it will be easy for folks to find. Why don’t you just go ahead though and for those that are perhaps listening while they’re jogging, give us the key for finding your website.
Sherry : 29:30 Sure. My website is Reflective Learning, and you can find it at www.reflecttolearn.com.
Steve: 29:37 Thank you.
Steve [Outro]: 29:42 Thanks again 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.