Lessons Learned from Coaching, Part 1: Building Capacity

Over the past year I helped develop the process for Teachers and Mentors to become Dell Certified and was happy to work in two school districts that had educators successfully complete the process. This work is coordinated by Advanced Learning Partnerships for Dell Education. The process helped me to reflect upon and energize my own coaching skills, and reminded me of a few ideas I need to keep focused on. This post is a first in a series about lessons I learned–or had to re-learn–during my coaching work this past year. I’ll keep returning to them in my own work and hope you find them helpful, too.

In the Dell Certification process for Mentors I use an eclectic approach. I include ideas from the work of Jim Knight, Elena Aguilar, cognitive coaching, from my mentor and friend Dr. Sharon Harsh, along with other tidbits I’ve picked up along the way. The focus is to help new coaches develop skills to help others reach their own goals. Despite the certification from a company known for technology, we practice listening and questioning and step back a little from jumping on the technology bandwagon to have deeper conversations about what educators need and want.

Coaches build the capacity of others to reach their goals.

John Ross (channeling Sharon Harsh)

My friend and mentor, Sharon Harsh, taught me more about capacity building through her own actions than I could find in any book. Working with her was a real highpoint in my career, because she helped me to understand the ultimate way coaches help build capacity—whether the capacity of individuals or organizations—and that’s through helping others reach their goals. We did this work formally through a contract with the U.S. Department of Education in the Appalachia Regional Comprehensive Center. I’ve taken that philosophy with me in my own coaching and try to help new coaches understand how that can impact their work.

Just a note of caution: This is my philosophy of what coaches do. In every school and district I work with, we have conversations about what is expected of coaches. We also talk about what coaches should not do. Those are interesting lists. I haven’t found one yet in which this philosophy doesn’t fit, but you should know where I’m coming from. That’s a good ELA strategy, know the author’s bias. This is mine.

Why do people become coaches? We’re in education, so it’s not really about the money. It’s also not because of the power. What power?!? Any coach would heartily laugh at that one. Teachers (and others) become coaches probably for many of the same reasons they become teachers—to help others. And like when we were new teachers, new coaches are excited about the potential. We’re eager to get into other peoples’ classrooms and get to work. To “fix” things.

I see that often with new coaches, including myself. And since I work with technology, I used to often lead with the technology solution. Learn this gadget, or try this resource. But very quickly we learn that not everyone comes to the coaching partnership with the same eagerness and interest in using technology. They may be open to some ideas, but new coaches have to realize the people they work with have their own interests and motivations. You can’t build their capacity without knowing what these are. So coaching relationships often start with setting goals and then working to help people achieve those goals.

Capacity can be measured by goals achieved

One of the first things coaches can do is to help others write reasonable goals. There are very few educators who have not heard of the SMART goal-setting process (Wikipedia has more about SMART goals), but I’ve run across fewer still that can actually use it to set reasonable goals for their own growth. When goals are about something you’re already doing, those are accomplishments, not goals. When they’re so large you can’t reasonably accomplish them, those are aspirations (not to mention frustration). One of the first steps a coach can take is to spend time—repeatedly—to set and monitor reasonable goals with the educators with whom they work.

Tech cart before the horseA well-written goal is like a roadmap. It tells me where you want to go, and as a coach, I then have a guide of how we might get there—together. That’s tough for a new coach, especially if you’ve been hired to help a school or district integrate a bunch of new and expensive technology. You want to lead with the tech cart. You want to share all the great things you did in your classroom! But it’s not your classroom any longer. You’re a guest, and if you keep your colleague’s goals in mind, you’ll become an integral part of that classroom.

Goal Example 1: In order to foster creative and innovative thinking in my schools, I will explore digital storytelling to present information found with online research tools. I will monitor my progress toward this goal by using the TIP Chart to self-reflect, guide my planning, self-evaluate my progress to ensure that I am moving toward the next step on the chart. Goal Example 2: In order for students to compare and contrast Plains and Woodland Indians, students will create a Google presentation on the lives, living conditions, food, clothing, and tools of the Native Americans.
Which of these would you want to coach to?


No coach is intentionally going to go in and try to take control, but being problem solvers, we tend to want to “fix” things, sometimes working on things that others don’t even think need fixing. So, there’s more I’ve learned from working with coaches, and I’ll share them. Next time.


A Step in the Right Direction

So, I had this good ladder and step metaphor going in my head when I posted last, and then life got in the way and I have been spending more nights in hotel beds than my own and got a little off track. But I remember the gist and wanted to share some tips I’ve picked up in my work about helping promote technology integration, and maybe even come round back to my metaphor.

Earlier this year I was doing a series of webinars for a group of technology integration specialists. These are teachers who help other teachers at their schools or districts integrate technology and I was presenting about creating an action research project around technology use in their school. During each of the webinars, I stopped for some Q&A and asked teachers what they wondered about in terms of technology integration, and without fail someone would wonder what they could do to get reluctant teachers to use technology. Yes, 30 years on in the wave to integrate digital technologies in the classroom, and we still have this problem.

I work rather holistically with schools. Sometimes I get called in to do some training, like these webinars, or I get to visit schools and do observations. One of my favorite things to do is to interview teaches and leaders at schools and figure out what it is they’re doing that others can learn from. I know each situation is different, but I’ve run into several commonalities across schools with exemplary technology-using teachers that I think are helpful and so wanted to share them. These few lessons are learned from those visits and represent some strategies any school can incorporate to get those still-reluctant teachers on the technology bandwagon.

Supplant, don’t supplement. Teaching is hard work and it takes a lot of time. It is not uncommon for a teacher to see 150 students a day, and we ask these teachers to differentiate, modify, and personalize their instruction for each one of those students. Many teachers develop routines, both classroom routines and instructional routines, that help them get through this overwhelming amount of work. Asking teachers to add technology is the wrong approach. You’re asking them to do more, and they’re doing so much already.

In schools that have had success integrating technology and getting even the most reluctant teachers on board, teachers are often shown how to incorporate technology into an existing lesson that then helps them do the lesson more efficiently or effectively. The effectiveness can often be seen in terms of student learning, where all students have access to differentiated information to inform their learning and can personalize how they demonstrate that learning to themselves and their teachers. Voila! Magic words. The students are differentiating their learning and the teacher doesn’t have to come up with 150 different activities. Perhaps an example is in order.

This past year I have been visiting schools in West Virginia that have been implementing a curriculum-based product called techSteps by SchoolKit. This alone is worth it’s own story, but for now, suffice it to say that techSteps provides K-8 teachers (and soon those in grades 9-12) with a range of technology-supported lessons that address core curricular areas. There are many great stories to tell about this effort, but I want to focus on one.

In one school I visited, the faculty were charged with collaborating on model lessons intended to address known problem areas in the curriculum. They were also going to integrate a techSteps lesson, and in a stroke of brilliance, the principal and technology integration specialist decided to use the techSteps lesson as the model lesson. The result was tremendous. Even the most reluctant teachers developed technology-based instruction that modeled the characteristics of high quality instructional design and pedagogy they had learned for developing their model lesson. By making technology integral to the instruction, it was no longer seen as an add-on. Many of those teachers have now created additional lessons that integrate the technology skills they developed in creating their model lesson. Now, more teachers are requesting to use the available technology more often—an interesting problem, but one the school is ready to face.

Start with the familiar. Let’s say you don’t have a technology curriculum product at your school. You can still find ways to promote technology integration. In many schools that have successfully traversed down this path, school leaders have gotten teachers on board by using technology for something teachers were already familiar with.

One of the most popular of these tools is gradebooks. Every teacher is familiar with gradebooks, but online gradebooks allow teachers to input data during or right after the point of a graded activity and share that information with students and parents immediately. In fact, some parents will check their child’s progress several times a day, even if teachers are not posting that often.

I can understand how some teachers can see this transparency as somewhat of an invasion of privacy. Gradebooks are sacred cows. But even the most staunch, veteran teachers, like the one who told me they were going to have to “rip her gradebook out of her dying hands,” admitted that the result is actually parents become more involved in their child’s learning. Parents know right away what students did in school that day and can take immediate steps to figure out how to get students back on track (if necessary) well before the end of a grading period, when it’s often too late. This is in addition to the many analysis and reporting features that make electronic gradebooks superior to paper gradebooks, and the way they can be linked to resources to help those struggling students, but maybe I’ll get to that another day.

Don’t give them an option. This may seem a little harsh, but if there is only one way to do something, and even if that way requires using technology, people often figure it out. Several schools I’ve visited have gotten rid of paper-based announcements and memos. They’ve moved all of the administrivia that used to take up the bulk of faculty meetings and moved it all online, either through e-mail or a school intranet site. The result, say all of these school leaders, is that faculty meetings are more substantive. They focus on efforts such as professional development, collaborative lesson planning, and data analysis.

The process wasn’t all sunshine and roses. At first, some teachers wouldn’t check their e-mail and would miss important announcements. But once these teachers understood that e-mail was the only way this information was going to be distributed, they got on board. And then…they used e-mail for other things. Very likely, they would first use e-mail to communicate with other teachers or even with friends and family. But many of these teachers branched out to using e-mail to communicate with parents. This could include sharing general information about upcoming school or class events, coordinating volunteers, or requests for student resources.

All of these strategies, and others I can explore later, all require one critical factor, and that is a strong leader that models technology integration. Strong leaders are a critical factor in school success, whether you’re targeting technology integration or not. So, a strong leader acts like a ladder or a scaffold, one that supports and helps teachers reach new heights. A strong leader also often challenges teachers, and you should know how I feel about that. I love a challenge. That was one of the common characteristics of the leaders I worked with in my schools. I might be doing o.k., but they were always there pushing me to the next step.

We’re back to my step metaphor, and I hope these three simple steps are ones that people find helpful for integrating technology. I hope to hear back about some steps others have taken in their own schools. Sharing makes us stronger, and I appreciate those teachers and school leaders that have shared their stories with me. More to come.