Collaborating, learning, and supporting the coaching process in underserved districts.

Author: Mandela Oxford

How Soon Is Too Soon to Observe Teachers?

How Soon Is Too Soon to Observe Teachers?

How soon is too soon to visit classrooms? Maybe that is the wrong question. How soon is too soon to start observing teachers and providing feedback? This is my struggle. Of course, as a coach, I want to get into classrooms as soon as possible. […]

Evaluating Instructional Materials: An Integral Part of Being an Instructional Coach

Evaluating Instructional Materials: An Integral Part of Being an Instructional Coach

Evaluating materials is often a part of the coaching gig, even though it isn’t in the typical coaching job description. We are often called on as experts to evaluate a variety of instructional materials, books, and programs. There are so many things to consider when […]

Gossip and Gripes: The Instructional Coach Chronicles

Gossip and Gripes: The Instructional Coach Chronicles

People talk. They gossip. They gripe about their colleagues. As a coach, I feel like I hear it all. To be successful, though, I can’t participate, no matter how tempting.

It isn’t because I don’t enjoy gossip. And certainly, it isn’t because I have no gripes. One of the things I focus on establishing with my teachers is that they can tell me anything without worrying about privacy, judgment, or negative consequences. To preserve the relationships I am building, I must be a vault. The black box. Information goes in raw and comes out not at all.

It is incredibly lonely to only listen. It is exhausting to choose my words carefully with everyone. It is depressing to hear accounts of terrible teacher behavior. It is delicate work to determine what action, if any, to take in response.

Developing appropriate responses to gossip and gripes is an ongoing challenge.

There are times when I gently suggest to someone sharing another teacher’s personal dramas that perhaps spreading rumors isn’t the most supportive course of action. Though nerve-wracking, the direct route usually works best. Questions I’ve asked include “How is sharing this information helping your colleague?,” “What could we do to support this person?,” or “I wonder if this information can help you work with this person?”

Often, gossip is an avoidance tactic. Teachers who gossip about others are generally attempting to avoid focusing on themselves. Those in this category are often unwittingly revealing insecurities about their professional acumen. When I recognize a teacher using gossip to stall, I can more easily put aside any irritation I might feel.

Other times, I simply listen and hold my tongue. There are people who use gossip to build connections with others and establish a personal relationship. Those same individuals are often also testing the trustworthiness of the people in whom they confide.

When teachers complain about each other’s professionalism, I find that trickier to manage. It irritates me when teachers tear each other down. Criticisms that are unjustified are especially irksome. The best I can do in those circumstances is to express surprise and offer counterexamples.

Criticisms based on legitimate concern are tough. Generally, I work with the teacher speaking to try and see things from a different perspective. Then I try to ensure I work with the teacher who is struggling on those areas that are problematic.

For example, two teachers came to me to complain that another teacher in their subject area is neither paying attention or contributing to group efforts. I tried to be tactful and ask them what efforts they have made to give her meaningful tasks or play to her strengths…to no avail. Finally, the tirade ended with a “How can she not sense the almost open hostility?”

I took a deep breath and said as calmly as possible, “Maybe she does and it rightly fuels some sense of self-righteous superiority.” Both women paused, looked at each other, and then one said, “Well, that’s counterproductive!” I agreed and asked them what they could try instead. There was some grumbling. I gave them a choice “Put some extra effort into finding ways to work with her, or expend that energy being irritated.” Despite the continued grumbles, they conceded that being irritated wasn’t working well for them.

Being so direct is always risky, but I know my teachers fairly well by now, and I felt confident a more direct approach was an appropriate course of action.

Still, though, I worry. What if I had been wrong? What if this teacher’s behavior becomes even more egregious. How much griping can I take? How do I help this teacher?

Gossip and gripes are inevitable with any group of people. Navigating them as a coach is tough. I wish I could wave a magic wand and make the ick people spew about each other go away. I don’t know if I always handle it in the best way possible. All I can say is that I try. I try to be the black box. I try to create and nurture relationships.

Using Core Competencies in Your Curriculum Planning Process

Using Core Competencies in Your Curriculum Planning Process

Core competencies in business are typically “soft skills.” Core competencies in academics have potential too. This year, I have the opportunity to facilitate curriculum writing through the lens of core competencies. I define core competencies as the 10-15 essential skills a student can expect to […]

Learning your Teachers

Learning your Teachers

Learning your teachers you coach is hard work. What do you need to know? What do you want to know? How can you establish a positive, productive working relationship? Where is the balance between coach and friendship? Coaching is inherently relational. Taking the time to […]

Harvard’s Project Implicit as a Coaching Tool

Harvard’s Project Implicit as a Coaching Tool

Harvard’s Project Implicit is an on-going research project collecting data on implicit bias through a series of online quizzes.

Anyone can anonymously attempt as many quizzes, on as many topics, as many times as desired. Demographic data is optional and results are provided with explanations and an overview of the project’s current finding.

This year, one of the activities I conducted with my teachers was based on Project Implicit.

I selected this activity for several reasons.

  • Community building: successfully engaging in an activity like this builds a sense of collective responsibility and trust among staff.
  • Assumptions surfacing: as a staff working with a unique and still largely undefined population of adult students, it is especially important that we are highly aware of our biases and work to proactively address them.
  • Culture: activities requiring a high level of honesty and trust build a culture based on trust and rooted in continuous improvement.
  • Awareness: reflecting on our assumptions and biases helps bring self-awareness.

Below is a description of how I conducted this activity.

  1. I began by informing the group that what we would be doing was designed to be uncomfortable.
  2. We read a quotation about assumptions and biases and discussed the impact of biases in the classroom.
  3. I explained that this was a no blame, no shame environment because implicit bias is inherently unknown.
  4. I modeled navigating the Project Implicit website, including taking part in a quiz publicly.
  5. Teachers were asked to select TWO quizzes on topics where they felt confident they had no bias and TWO on topics where they were concerned or curious about their potential bias.
  6. We spent about an hour taking as many quizzes as possible.
  7. Teachers recorded the results.
  8. At the end of the allotted time, I asked teachers to share.

The response to this exercise was remarkable. As a group, we had strong discussions about the potential impact of teacher biases on students. No one denied the existence or importance of such implicit biases. We talked about the negative impact assumptions, even positive assumptions can have on students when left unexamined.

Teachers were thoughtful in their selection of which quizzes to take. Despite some obvious discomfort, we all made a significant attempt to be as honest as possible when answering the questions.

Many shared specific results they found surprising in a positive way. Some talked about how the results they got mirrored things they had been told by family and friends, but never really believed. Several were shocked that the results in the areas about which they had the most concern revealed little or no bias. On the other hand, some were shocked by the results in areas they felt confident they had no bias.

I conducted this exercise with three groups. Only one person was genuinely upset and resistant to the results of any particular results.

As a group, we talked about what we can do with these results. Does this mean I am a bad person? How do I change my implicit biases? Who else found out something similar about themselves?

We discussed the idea that the results are not infallible proof and don’t disparage our character or positive intentions. This exercise is meant to provide food for thought. I told them I wanted them to be more conscious of potential bias and more intentional in reflecting on why they react to student behaviors or some types of students in specific ways. The goal is awareness. Awareness is what allows action and leads to growth.

At the end of the day, participants completed a brief anonymous survey. In it, they identified a small number of specific action steps they could take. I encouraged them to identify a colleague to work with as an accountability partner.

I don’t know how many will follow through. I don’t know how many really invested in this exercise. I can say that the conversations were real and raw. I can say the level of trust was high. At the end of the session with the last group, one teacher and I were talking on our way out. She said, “I know I can be a little close-minded and I want you to know I really appreciated how you challenged my thinking today. I need that.” She thanked me, but her comment was all the thanks I could possibly need.

I know I can be a little close-minded and I want you to know I really appreciated how you challenged my thinking today. I need that. Click To Tweet

Best of all, I have heard about this session from someone every day since. Several people have reported taking additional quizzes. Some have mentioned asking family and friends to take them too. It has been an on-going topic of discussion. When it comes to identifying and addressing implicit biases, making it an on-going topic of discussion is the best possible outcome.

As the year progresses, I am planning to revisit this exercise. My teachers and I will develop personal coaching plans. This exercise will be part of that discussion. In a few months, I will ask teachers to retake some Project Implicit quizzes and we will discuss any changes in the results.

Project Implicit is a window into a difficult subject. I am excited about the research aspect and I am excited about the potential it has to enrich my instructional coaching this year.

Manage Coaching Tasks with Google Tools

Manage Coaching Tasks with Google Tools

It is vitally important to have systems to manage coaching tasks effectively. Every coach needs systems to give teachers feedback. Without systems in place, coaches can easily become overwhelmed by other tasks and lose track of observations, feedback, and coaching conversations. Coaches also need tools […]

Tracking Professional Development Hours with Certify’em

Tracking Professional Development Hours with Certify’em

Tracking professional development can be a huge headache. It doesn’t have to be. A simple add-in for Google Forms can save hours of work. It is called Certify’em. Other bloggers such as Alice Keeler and Free Technology for Teachers have written about this awesome little […]

Collective Commitments: A Meaningful Team Building Activity

Collective Commitments: A Meaningful Team Building Activity

Finding meaningful team building activities can be a challenge. Recently, I crafted an introductory team activity I want to share. When I planned this activity, I was hopeful it would work well. It surpassed my expectations.

I call this activity “Creating Collective Commitments.” I did not coin the term “collective commitments.”  A colleague used it and it stuck in my head because its implications are so powerful. A quick Google search clarified the ideas, provided examples, and uncovered existing protocols. I define collective commitments as statements of value and behavior aligned to the mission and vision of the organization.

The purpose of a collective commitments activity is to build common mental models and generate pledges about how group members plan to achieve their goals. Click To Tweet

The purpose of a collective commitments activity is to build common mental models and generate pledges about how group members plan to achieve their goals. When every member of a group believes in the mission and vision and sees how the group’s work contributes to that end, members become invested in the work. That personal investment in the work and one another is what drives the motivation to work hard and behave in ways that support success.

To conduct this exercise, the facilitator will need to organization’s mission, vision, and values. With technology, a projector and a Padlet can be used. The analog version could be conducted with poster paper and sticky notes instead.

Here are the steps:

  1. Introduce the activity and explain that collective commitments are an alternative to “norms.” They represent each member’s pledge to the group and the group’s work. Provide examples of common commitments such as:
  • “We commit to making each group member feel valued.”
  • “We commit to using a variety of types of data to drive decision-making.”
  • “We commit to effective communication.”

*If necessary, take the time to further clarify the difference between collective commitments and norms (the former is rooted in the belief that dictates behavior, while the later is limited to expected behaviors). Display the mission of the organization.

  1. Ask group members to write, pair, share about how each interprets the mission.
  2. Discuss to develop a consensus or common mental model.
  3. Display the vision of the organization and ask the group: What do we have to do to make this vision our reality?
  4. Use a silent appointment or other partnering protocol for group members to pair up and discuss their thoughts.
  5. Share and discuss as a large group to develop a consensus or common mental model.
  6. Display or distribute the organization’s values one at a time.
  7. For each value, discuss the value and ask small groups to craft related collective commitment statements.
  8. Instruct groups to post their statements on a digital or analog bulletin board visible to the entire group.
  9. Allow time for group members to review all the suggested statements using a selection protocol such as colored sticker dots (analog) or “likes” (digital).
  10. Select, combine, or refine statements until the group has agreed to 5-10 collective commitments all members believe they can uphold with fidelity to support the purpose of the work.

Though this seems rather involved, I believe it is worth the investment. I conducted this activity in an hour, but needed more time and will revisit it in another session later. The participation in and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. In subsequent interactions, the team has been functioning with a level of ease and purpose I have not seen before.

As organizations embrace the importance of culture and relationships, reframing how we establish teams is vitally important. Exercises like this have the potential to establish deeper team cohesion and decrease petty irritations that can interfere with productivity.