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Tripped Any Teachers Lately?

One of just a handful of early risers using a hotel health club, I was “in the zone” on a treadmill, my attention glued to one of my favorite movies on the television screen above the row of machines. Suddenly the image disappeared, replaced by a news station, and…I tripped and skidded off the treadmill. Ouch! A newcomer had changed channels without even asking whether any of us minded. As I brushed off my scraped elbow, I thought, How rude can you be? If she’d asked, I wouldn’t have minded changing channels, and I would have had enough warning to avoid taking a tumble.

Teachers get “in the zone” in their classroom, too. Granted, they can be in a rut, teaching in their favorite ways just as I stuck on watching my favorite movie. But how often do we force change on them without enough preparation, causing them to trip? We say, “Make it so” and expect them to implement something foreign–without considering how each teacher must adjust in order to make the change. Here are three anti-tripping tips.

Discern the focus of their attention. A few of you, reading my opening paragraph, probably thought, Doesn’t she know enough to keep her mind on the treadmill, not the movie? Well, yes, but it was one of my favorite scenes! Similarly, school leadership often assumes teachers “should” be paying attention to something when another equally important topic or concern has them riveted. Just yesterday, I asked the PLC teams at a school to look at their October mathematics curriculum and determine where the strategy I’d just introduced could be used. However, when I stopped by one team, they were focused on student work they’d collected from that day’s assessment. They asked me, “Was this developmentally appropriate? Our students did so poorly on it, yet we thought we’d given them plenty of tools to succeed.” I changed my focus instead of asking them to change theirs. We identified the building blocks of knowledge their students were most likely missing and discussed how these might be retaught during intervention sessions. Coincidentally, the strategy I’d introduced was a perfect fit for their intervention needs. Seeing how it matched their current focus got them very excited about making the effort it will take to master that new strategy. If I’d ignored their concern, I’d probably have met with resistance instead.

Map their needs. On that treadmill, all I needed was a warning that my movie was about to disappear (or better yet, a request to change at the end of that beloved scene…) Just like students, teachers have different needs. Take a look at the free download on this site’s Case Study page, “Coaching Styles Descriptions” to see just how differently they want to be coached! One thing I’ve learned to do is ask–yesterday, we let the teachers know that they would need to bring student work to illustrate how they were using the new strategy to their next PLC meeting. They would be held accountable for implementation of what they were learning in professional development time. However, their PLC team discussion questions included, “What else do you need before implementing this strategy? Sample problems? Modeling? More information? Let us know!” And, several groups did just that!!

Remember that with great power comes great responsibility, according to Spiderman’s uncle. That person with the remote had all the power–and a responsibility to ensure her wishes didn’t hurt others (no she didn’t even ask if I was okay…she obviously needs to watch the movies I watch to learn some manners!) When we hold teachers accountable, we need to hold ourselves accountable to make our expectations realistic. Yesterday, I emphasized that teachers might need to try the strategy at least six times before students would be comfortable enough to use it well. I provided examples of “baby steps” one could take in trying it, rather than insisting they try the full-blown version I modeled. We gave three suggestions for collecting student work that would not involve extra preparation time for the teachers. In other words, it was our responsibility to set the teachers up for success in using a strategy we consider essential.

Come to think of it, school leadership can feel like trying to motivate everyone to stay on a treadmill. If you think through focus, needs, and your responsibilities for helping teachers succeed, everyone can have that great “in the zone” experience that educators feel when students succeed.

Jane Kise is a consultant and executive coach. The founder of Differentiated Coaching Associates and author of over 20 books, she works with schools and businesses worldwide to help create environments where everyone can flourish.

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