Steve’s earlier podcast on the disappointing findings from research on data review meetings impacting teacher learning and change triggered this conversation with instructional coach and math consultant, Nikki Szajkowski. Nikki shared that curriculum changes need to include administrators asking, “what do teachers need us to learn?” For teachers to receive supportive feedback, leaders need to be clear on the “look for’s” and “listen for’s” in desired student learning production behaviors and the teacher actions designed to generate that student engagement.
Read Steve’s blog, “Coaches Time in Data Review Meetings”
Find Nikki on Twitter: @nikkiskimath
Email Nikki: firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit Nikki’s website.
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 What do teachers need us to learn? Several weeks back, I posted a podcast and a blog about instructional coaches working with teachers in data team meetings. I did some research from a Harvard professor, Dr. Heather Hill, where she described there being a limited impact of those meetings on increasing teacher understanding and in changing teacher practice. Now, without those in impacts on teachers, it’s really difficult to justify the time and the dollars that get spent on assessment and on these review meetings. Following the podcast, I received a note from Nikki Szajkowski, an instructional coach and math consultant in Alaska, whom I had had the opportunity to work with previously in another district. And when I read her note, I immediately dropped off a a follow up and asked her if she joined me on a podcast and she agreed. So welcome, Nikki.
Nikki: 01:40 Glad to be here.
Steve: 01:42 Nikki, would you tell folks a little bit about your background and the work that you do?
Nikki: 01:48 Sure. So I’m currently in Alaska where I was born and raised, but took a little leapfrogs across the country in Colorado, in North Dakota over the years. And in that time, I’ve been elementary teacher teaching kindergarten, first grade, third, and fourth. And then I was an instructional coach and then moved to the district level as a curriculum specialist for four years. During that time, I also started doing math consulting independently with districts, working with teachers and leaders as they work through implementation of new curriculum and just thinking about what does it look like to have best practice in mathematics and what does it look like for students to really engage and understand the math that we’re teaching them. And so now I’m currently back in Alaska as an instructional coach and I’m still doing work as a consultant.
Steve: 02:40 Well, I want to tell you that I’ve always in enjoyed learning whenever you and I have have worked together because the conversation goes off and I title my work, Steve Barkley Ponders, and you frequently made it pretty easy to get me pondering. So I’m wondering, as you had a chance to listen to that that that podcast on the data review, what kind of what kind of insights or thoughts hit you?
Nikki: 03:11 Well, I think it came on the tails of two things. I had just worked with some data meetings with some teachers and felt less than pleased internally of how it went. I felt like I said the wrong things or didn’t say enough, and that there wasn’t much movement. Like, there wasn’t clear direction for the teachers of what are we doing next. And then shortly after that, I had listened to your podcast. And then I was working with a group of 20 new principals who are supporting their teachers in a first year implementation of a new math curriculum and I kind of pivoted my normal, how I work with them normally, because I often work with teachers. This was a little different working with just leaders.
Nikki: 04:00 And so instead of saying, this is what you’re gonna do in your classrooms, this is how you can launch this lesson, this is how you can engage with students in the math, I flipped it to, this is the math we’re asking your teachers to teach because it aligns to the standards and because this is what kids need to learn at this grade level or that grade level. But let’s step it back a little bit and ask ourselves as leaders, what do our teachers need us to understand about this math, to understand about this curriculum in order for us to support them in being successful in the implementation. And it ended up just being such a powerful time, because everything was focused on what do I as a leader who have all these teachers that are trying to implement this new curriculum, what do they need from me in this moment right now learning about so that I can adequately support them.
Steve: 04:53 You know from the work that you’ve done with me, that a big focus of mine is on what I all student learning production behaviors. That is, what is it that the students need to do that’s going to cause the learning. And I frequently pointed out that I thought a problem existed frequently that we implement a new curriculum without the teachers understanding how the new curriculum is designed to change the student learning production behaviors. So we end up with teachers implementing a new curriculum without really changing what those behaviors are in the parts of kids. And I’m guessing it’s even a step further removed then to say, does the principal know what the student learning production behaviors are when they’re looking at at walkthroughs or observations and giving feedback to teachers. Does that align?
Nikki: 06:03 Absolutely. And I think that this is beyond math, but math is kind of the world that I live in right now. If you have a district or a school that’s going from kind of more traditional math program, where kids are sitting at their desk, working on a worksheet, the teacher is kind of the expert, this is how you do it and then the student sits down and starts kind of mimicking the problems they saw. Well with common core and just the change of the change of research on how kids learn and how kids really understand mathematics, there has been a shift within curriculums which is more problem based where instead of just worksheet after worksheet and problem after problem, students are seeing the math standards in a greater context and are really having to think through the problems that they’re faced with. And so that is a huge shift in what we’re asking students to do, which is going from a work worksheet and kind of mimicking what the teacher does to really marinating in a problem, thinking through it, making a plan, and then going forward with that plan all the while, having rich discourse with their peers.
Nikki: 07:11 But if we don’t adequately support our teachers in understanding that shift, they won’t know how to kind of orchestrate that in their classroom, but then that goes back even farther. Do our principals understand, or our school leaders, our instructional coaches, do they understand this shift and how to support their teachers in answering the question of why are we going this way? Isn’t the way I learned math 20 years ago okay? Why do I have to shift? And I think our leaders need to be ready and prepared to go, this is why, let me show you this research or let’s dive into some problems together so that we can feel the difference and feel deeper learning as adults, and then take that into our classroom so we’re ready to teach it.
Steve: 07:55 How do you see an instructional coach and building administrators working together to provide that support that teachers need?
Nikki: 08:08 Well, I think it’s just a perfect partnership because the principal has how many things on their plate in a day. So they are not able to usually go into classrooms and model lessons and watch full hour long math lessons or literacy lessons, unless it’s for teacher evaluation, where the coach is able to really go in and co-teach and model and support and ask questions. And so if the principal and the coach are on the same page of this is where we want our teachers to go in order for our students to get to this place, then I think there can be a real clearly defined, this is what my job’s gonna be in this implementation, and this is what your job is gonna be. My job is gonna be to support the teachers, to answer questions, to model lessons and your job as the principal is gonna go in and support and monitor, and also make sure these things and these shifts are happening, that I am seeing students engaged in discourse and really thinking through these problems, not just reverting back to what is comfy and going back to worksheet after worksheet.
Nikki: 09:16 And so I think it is just a nice partnership and accountability for everyone involved.
Steve: 09:23 I have to say, a thought that was jumping into my mind that I’ve suggested to coaches at times is to, when the coach is doing those model lessons for the teacher, to consider invite the principal to coach the coach. So if the if the coach can explain to the principal, here’s the here’s the student learning behaviors, or here’s the teacher actions that are most critical, I’d like you to look for those while I’m modeling this and give me feedback on it and that allow the teacher to sit in on that conversation, then it in effect, models the next couple of steps that the coach can be can be taking with that teacher.
Nikki: 10:07 Absolutely. I think that that also really models vulnerability, that we’re not just asking teachers to do the heavy lifting that we’re all thinking through and holding ourselves accountable and also being vulnerable in the process that we all need coaching and we all need to learn this and we all have the capacity to get better.
Steve: 10:29 It triggered for me the the principals who I’ve had tell me that when they go into teacher’s classrooms announced, in other words, the teacher knows in advance that they’re coming, they actually frequently see less of the kind of teacher and student behaviors that we’re looking for than if they’re just doing walkthroughs because the teacher sensing evaluation, tends to play it safe. And really, if I’m correct on this, the kind of instruction that you’re building into the math work that you’re doing is risk taking on the students part, which probably means risk taking on the teachers part.
Nikki: 11:19 And I think that there’s risk taking on the principals part as well. The risk there is saying, I don’t know what I’m supposed to see. I’m not in the classroom day in and day out. My hands aren’t in these curriculums, whether it’s ELA or math or science or anything. So having the risk of the principal saying, why did you have them do it this way? Or why do you have these manipulatives? Tell me about this that I’m seeing and the teachers recognizing that that is coming from a place of risk on the principal’s part of just being curious to build their own understanding up of answering those questions that they may have.
Steve: 11:55 Yeah. Almost setting it up that it’s a learning opportunity for the administrator to engage in the conversation with the teacher, rather than the administrator know the right answer. It’s kind of ringing in my head, when I’m introducing peer coaching at the at the secondary level, I frequently suggest that people start their coaching outside of their content area so that the coach then, the peer coach, naturally is asking those kinds of questions because they don’t know what the teacher’s curriculum is and what the teacher should be doing. So it actually causes the teacher to engage in a great conversation as they’re explaining things to the coach. And I’ve found often, in my own role as coach, that as the teachers explaining something to me, they actually hear and figure something out themselves. An insight emerges from it and I always laugh at this because it’s not uncommon for them to turn around and give you the coach credit for it when it was actually their idea. The thing you really did was to cause the reflection.
Nikki: 13:21 Yep. I think too, I will often go in and ask teachers when I’m observing or just supporting, what’s the meat of this lesson? What’s your overarching lesson or goal? Or at the end of this lesson, you’ll know students really got it if you see what. And oftentimes, we start at the beginning and just go through versus starting at the end and saying, my students need to know this by the end of today, what steps do I need to build in, what questions do I need to ask? What do I need to anticipate will happen to get here? And oftentimes, we haven’t thought through that. So same thing, teachers will go kind of walk backwards and then go oh, that might be a good place to start. And I think too, that’s a great place for building leaders to start, where do I wanna be at the end of this year of implementation or year three of implementation? Where do I want my school to be? So what do I need to learn? What do I need to do? What do I need to put in place in staff meetings or in PLC times so that I can help my staff reach that end goal? If we start at the beginning and go day by day, I don’t know if we’ll ever reach that end point.
Steve: 14:36 So if you’re looking at that coach principal partnership then, it’s really their ability to set a goal for where they want the learners to be at the end of the year, which then says for that to happen, here’s where teachers need to be and for that to happen, here’s where we need to be. So in that backwards planning process, you actually get to the behaviors of the coach and the principal last in planning. But now the big piece is, now they actually start the implementation. So then the ongoing check back that we need to be doing is, are the leaders, are the coach and the principal, are we carrying out the behaviors that we need to carry out? And are we beginning to see the impact that it’s having on the teachers? If those impacts aren’t showing up, so following your work with math, following your work with math professional development, following the changes in the curriculum, are we beginning to see changes in what teachers and kids are doing in the classroom? And if we aren’t, then it means back to the drawing board for the principal and the coach, because something has to change on our part before that change is gonna come upon the teacher’s part.
Nikki: 15:59 Absolutely. If we’re still seeing what we were doing five years ago and we’ve agreed that that’s not what we wanna see anymore, we’re wanting to see X, Y, or Z, then what do we need to do within our building and together as a coach principal partnership to make those changes and support our teachers in them.
Steve: 16:17 So Nikki, I thought of a question to move us to a close here that I that I didn’t share with you in advance. So I’ll kind of throw
it out to you as a curve. But I’m doing a lot of work with the, with districts right now and I’m doing some of my own writing and my own studying on how do we respond to this post COVID time, what what some folks are identifying as as learning loss that’s occurred during that time. What’s your thinking on the role of coaches and administrators in making happen for students for teachers? In my mind, we really can’t be looking at teachers to change what they’re doing for kids unless we change what it is that we’re providing to the teachers. So thoughts on that?
Nikki: 17:14 Yeah, that’s a great question that I spent a lot of time myself thinking about myselft, because we are talking about the learning loss that has happened, and yet we’re still wanting the same end goal for teachers and for students. And I think that there has to be some reckoning on two things. I think one thing that I’ve heard a lot from teachers all across the country is our kids just aren’t ready for this so I’m going back to the grade level below. Well, then these students are gonna keep moving forward. So they’re not accessing grade level content, which I think is a huge concern. So I think as leaders, how are we supporting teachers and making sure that students are still accessing grade level content, by having supports in place for them that they’re able to access grade level content. I think a lot of times teachers are miracle workers and absolutely doing their best, but they don’t always know where to go when they have a class of students that they’ve never really had before in the sense of the differentiated needs. And I think the second part is districts and at state and federal, higher levels, we need to decide what is our end goal with all of these changes? Are we gonna keep pushing forward or is there space or margin to address this learning loss? But it seems really hard to put this all on the shoulders of teachers, the learning loss, while also telling teachers to take care of themselves. Those seem to be two differing directives.
Steve: 18:57 Yeah. My most recent blog is about my frustration with the whole learning loss conversation saying that we understand what it means and the teacher wellbeing conversation. And and they’re having both conversations at the same time. The piece that goes through my mind that matches up here is, it really, for me, is a increased focus on learning and less of the focus on teaching the material. So the teacher’s ability and the administrator’s understanding of what it is the teacher’s doing to engage the kids and the behaviors that are gonna cause the learning. And I’ve always known that that learning doesn’t flow as smoothly as teaching can. If you’re not worried about the learning, you can teach anything in any time in any framework that you need, but once you bring that focus back on how the learning happens, the kind of conversations you and I are having night right now are the ones that I think need to be going on between coaches administrators and teachers.
Nikki: 20:13 Right. I’ll have teachers who will say, well, I gave the quiz and they all got, you know, two out of 15 and it’s like, well, is the goal to give the quiz, or is the goal to have student understanding on the material? But that’s the crux of the problem, right? Because we were telling teachers, they need to keep going, they need to keep going, but there’s clear evidence that there isn’t understanding class wide. So that is a hard place for a teacher to be.
Steve: 20:41 Well, Nikki, thanks so much for taking the time with me. I’m wondering, do you have a preferred way that listeners might be able to
follow up with you if they if they have a question or a thought they’d like to share?
Nikki: 20:53 Absolutely. I am on Twitter @nikkiskimath and then I can also give you my e-mail address, Steve, and we can put that in with podcast.
Steve: 21:07 Okay. Terrific. We will do that. So thanks so much and have a great rest of your day.
Nikki: 21:13 Thanks, Steve.
Steve [Outro]: 21:16 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.