Lessons Learned from Coaching, the Finale

This final post in this three-part series is a celebration of the great educators I get to work with in the Dell Mentor Certification process. We’ve had some rewarding moments together, and my current cohorts are no exception. In Jim Knight’s book he notes, “Coaches make it possible for teachers to take time to have real conversations about teaching.” It’s sad that many teachers don’t get that time to reflect with someone, because it’s really powerful when teachers do have that time.

“Coaches make it possible for teachers to take time to have real conversations about teaching.”

Jim Knight

First-Order Challenges Often Mask Second-Order Barriers

I’ve been a fan of Peg Ertmer’s work for a while, so you should know how great it is to be able to work with her on our technology integration textbook (under revision for the third edition, by the way). One of my favorite pieces of Peg’s is a think piece she published a while ago in ETR&D (1999) about how second-order barriers often underlie the more often mentioned first-order barriers, and are the true barriers to effective change. First-order barriers are extrinsic barriers that are often relatively easy to address. They can be perceived as things like a lack of time, limited access to devices or support, or lack of professional development. I agree with Karen Cator, the former EdTech Director for the U.S. Department of Education, when she said at an ISTE conference that there are lots of ways schools can and do address these types of barriers. First-order barriers can be and often are overcome through simple strategies of resource allocation, scheduling, and varied modes of services.

Time is one of the most often cited first-order barriers; however, it’s easy to observe and catalog where teachers spend their time and find ways to help them better organize their time to get a bigger payoff. They can even use technology to save time, as technology can easily perform routine teaching duties, like taking attendance, assessing knowledge comprehension, and recording evidence of student work. Even limited access to devices and PD can be overcome through strategic—and sometimes creative—use of resources (time, people, and money) and getting people across a school or district to work together rather than in silos. But once that happens, technology initiatives often have to deal with the underlying intrinsic barriers to change, or second-order barriers.

These barriers often relate to our very own philosophies and perceptions of who we are and how we think people should act, especially ourselves. Since I work in education, second-order barriers often relate to a teacher’s basic understanding of what a teacher should be, how they manage a classroom, and how students should behave in that classroom. In other words, second-order barriers can be challenges to our foundational understanding of what we think and know to be true about ourselves and our profession. Pretty heady stuff.

The Power of Coaching

During a visit this school year with one of my Dell Mentor cohorts, the candidates observed classrooms and then participated in a role play exercise to practice their coaching conversation skills. Some had the option to pretend to be one of the teachers we observed or they could choose a professional issue they were working on as the focus of their conversation with their peer. What resulted, literally every time, was magic.

In one, a young teacher worked with one of the other coaches on what to do with students who complete their work early in class. He noted that some of his students rushed through their work and would begin socializing at the end of class and it became disruptive. He wanted them to remain quiet and busy. When questioned, he noted that the students that finished their work early also often did well on their assignments, so he didn’t have the leverage of poor performance to get them working. After some conversation, and working through our summarizing and clarifying questioning techniques, I asked, “Does it upset you that they finish early, even though they’re doing well?”

His response was a vehement, “YES! They don’t act the way I did in school! They don’t push themselves to do more.” At this point, it may be obvious, but we went from discussing the first-order barrier of keeping student busy during class to the underlying, second-order barrier of a perception that his students have different motivations or possibly work ethics when it comes to a topic this teacher is passionate about. It was really quite a breakthrough facilitated primarily by his conversation with a colleague. What resulted afterward changed the direction of the conversation and the types of support he was offered.

That type of breakthrough seemed to happen each time one of my groups completed their role play. At another school, one of the coaches pretended to be a teacher we observed and started out asking for help on using a technology, but her colleague helped uncover that the teacher was really seeking approval from her students. In another, a veteran teacher had a conversation with her younger colleague that began with frustration with students and parents. She had been trained in and was trying more student-centered pedagogies and her students were pushing back. They “just wanted to know” what to do without having to take on so much responsibility for their own learning. The underlying challenge her colleague uncovered was that this new approach changed her role in the classroom so much that she was feeling a bit uncomfortable. It was very different from what she, and her students, had done in the past, but she felt the gains in learning were well worth it. In all of these conversations, having someone—a trained someone—to share concerns and open up became a great catharsis.

These teachers are lucky because they had someone to talk with. Upon completion, these newly certified Dell Mentors will be additional resources for the school district to support more collegial conversations. Having a trusted someone to talk with about your teaching–whether a coach, an administrator, or another teacher–is an important component for helping teachers feel and be successful. I appreciate the honor of working with so many coaches and teachers and look forward to learning more from them in the future.

Please note: 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. 


Ertmer, P. A. (199). Addressing first- and second-order barriers to change: Strategies for technology integration. Educational Technology, Research and Development, 47(4), 47-61.

Knight, J. (2007). Instructional coaching. A partnership approach to improving instruction. NSDC.

Tech-tonic Shifts: What can school leaders do to support change?

Please note: This is the fourth and last in a series of posts in response to a request from Susan Swift, a language arts teacher at Hempstead High School in Dubuque, IA, who is writing a book on technology integration. 

So, now you’ve gotten started. You’ve bought some new materials, perhaps some technology devices or new curricular materials, or you’ve brought in some trainer to help spread the word. Boxes have been opened, people have been trained…now what?

Unfortunately, this is when a lot of initiatives fall short. They’re frontloaded with planning and training, but the resources aren’t put into place to nurture and sustain the effort. I can tell when I visit a school or district with a follow through problem when teachers (or other staff) talk about “what we did last year,” or even the year before and there’s no clear connection from year to year or initiative to initiative.

This also happens in those districts or schools with implementation overload. Every year someone introduces new materials, new methods, new devices with no clear long-range plan that ties them all together. I was visiting one school where the faculty complained they had “too much” training. They were introduced to so many things, they said it was like a buffet. But in the end, as one overwhelmed teacher told me, “Just show me 1 or 2 things that works and give me time to really learn how to use it.”

I developed the following guidance for school leaders implementing technology initiatives in their schools, but they could help anyone charged with implementing change. You’ll see some advice repeated from earlier, but that just highlights the importance of some of these strategies. This list began with advice from Margaret Heritage (2010) but I’ve combined some items and school it down to be a little more manageable.

  1. Communicate. This bears repeating. School leaders articulate, and constantly communicate, the value of any change effort. This begins with and returns to the vision, but it has to be relevant. If it’s not important to school leadership, it’s not important to teachers. Administrators who don’t buy in to a change effort can actually derail it. School leaders help everyone–teachers, other staff, parents, students–understand the importance of the initiative and reinforce it through multiple and varied communications.
  2. Support. School leaders provide explicit support to their teachers and staff related to the effort. People participating in and impacted by the change will need different kinds of support. Often, this implies new kinds of support. Determine what kind of support is needed. Be specific. Avoid platitudes or overgeneralizing. Yes, teachers need professional development, but what kind? Lesson study, observations, time to collaborate? Yes people will need time, but what kind of time specifically? Time to collaborate, to plan, to experiment? Identify the types of support and prioritize those needs.
  3. Dedicate time: School leaders find and protect time to engage in real work around the change initiative. Change efforts require ongoing time for meeting, reflection, and discussion. If these times succumb to other meetings or duties, the change won’t occur. Many schools have professional learning communities (PLCs), some just in name only. Any change effort, if worth doing, should be incorporated into existing PLC efforts. Every PLC meeting should result in some tangible outcome related to the change effort.
  4. Embed and connect: School leaders make connections to other initiatives. Teachers don’t have a lot of time, so even the best intended initiative won’t be effective if they don’t understand how new initiatives support existing initiatives or processes. School leaders should make these connections explicit, communicate them often, and tie them together. If a new technology initiative is implemented, school leaders help teachers understand how it will impact or support lesson planning, instruction, classroom observations, communications with students and parents–everything.
  5. Allocate resources: School leaders make strategic decisions about the allocation of resources that support the initiative. Not all resources require new funding. New initiatives should be implemented as an effort to addressing an existing need. Is literacy an issue? How will the change initiative support literacy? Conduct an analysis of what does and doesn’t work and get rid of those that don’t! Too many schools hand on to legacy programs that are ineffective just because “that’s the way we do it around here.” It can also help to get staff from different departments, along with the budgets they oversee, to get together and see how a new effort can support their work. Very often, technology initiatives can support multiple programs (e.g., Title programs, special education, literacy, and technology programs) and can be made affordable when budgets are combined across programs, something that may not be attainable by a single program’s budget.
  6. Take risks: School leaders establish and nurture an atmosphere of risk taking and learning from mistakes. School leaders will have to consider how they deal with taking risks and making mistakes. Teachers are not the only ones who will be trying new things or having to learn new skills. School leaders should be sure to learn alongside teachers by determining which trainings and meetings they’ll participate in with teachers. They may also want to consider which meetings they won’t participate in, in case teachers want some time to practice and work on their own.
  7. Acknowledge and celebrate! School leaders comment on, encourage, and celebrate teachers who demonstrate positive aspects of the initiative. Whenever a school leader visits a classroom, they should be sure to recognize aspects of the initiative (catch teachers doing good things drawn from the initiative) and comment on and encourage teachers who are doing so. And plan for and implement celebration! What celebrations are already in place where teachers and others can be acknowledge for the work their doing? Can they be acknowledged at staff meetings, daily announcements, with letters or cards, in newsletters, or on digital media like the school website, Facebook page, or other means? Celebration is fun and encouraging but often overlooked.

I encourage school or change leaders to do an analysis of existing strategies and processes that support each of these seven strategies. Include people responsible for them, such as the school secretary that puts together the school newsletter where you’re going to acknowledge the good work of your teachers, or the department heads that are going to carry your message back to their colleagues on a daily basis. Determine what works and whom to involve.

You may also need to develop or implement new strategies. For example, some schools may have department meetings but not really PLCs. If you plan to support the change effort with teachers from multiple departments, schools may need to find and adopt a PLC model to help organize those meetings and make them more effective.

In summary, I suggest that we, as an education community, know a lot about implementing and sustaining successful change initaitives. Unfortunately, we, as individual educators, may not always know about this body of knowledge nor about the strategies necessary to successfully implement change. Hopefully this brief overview provides some concrete ideas and strategies for those either leading or succumbing to change efforts and will find it helpful to make those change efforts more successful.


Heritage, M. (2010). Formative assessment. Making it happen in the classroom. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Tech-tonic shift: Basic needs of capacity building

Please note: This is the third in a series of posts in response to a request from Susan Swift, a language arts teacher at Hempstead High School in Dubuque, IA, who is writing a book on technology integration. It’s taken many months to get back on track with this, but I’m done and have part four on the way.

In 2013, I helped the Appalachia Regional Comprehensive Center (ARCC, 2013) put together a two-day regional seminar on systemic change. Presenters came from several states along with the U.S. Department of Education and the Council of Chief State School Officers. At the opening session, Erick Oetjen, a senior vice president for ICF International, the organization that holds the ARCC contract, opened the seminar with a few experiences from his own work supporting large-scale, capacity-building efforts, especially in areas related to social change.

Eric eloquently and quickly laid the groundwork for the seminar by outlining four key components that anyone implementing a capacity building change effort should consider. (He was so good, that he was later featured in a one-hour webinar in which he was given more time to expand on these ideas. You can find the webinar archive here.) Eric gave these four guidelines that I believe represent some key basic needs for supporting capacity building change. I elaborate on each briefly in relation to technology initiatives, specifically, which is where I most often see these coming into play.

  1. Think broadly about the stakeholders and engage them early. Too often technology initiatives are seen as external to the day-to-day work of the school, which is promoting student learning. Technology initiatives are often isolated, sometimes stigmatized, so it’s difficult to get widespread buy-in. Sometimes we think it’s only the IT staff or the technology coach that needs to buy-in, but any successful school initiative will include all stakeholders, from administrators, teachers, and other staff to parents and–most importantly–the students. Eric notes that if you don’t engage all stakeholders early, you’re going to have to at some point in order to be successful. I add that if you don’t plan to engage them early, you may not like how some of them get involved and the negative impact some stakeholders can have on even the most worthwhile initiative.
  2. Move towards a common language. I sometimes think that educators are the worst in terms of jargon–what I call “educationese.” I’m sure every industry has their own, but in education we use so many common words (e.g., authentic, engaged, problem, project, assessment) that often end up meaning very different things in an educational setting. Eric warns that if change leaders don’t help everyone come to a common understanding of key terms, concepts, and process, people end up “talking past each other.” Common language, of course, starts with a clear vision and constantly referring to that vision to make sure your initiative is on track. I’ve gone so far as to creating “word walls” or glossaries of key terms to help everyone get on the same page.
  3. Develop a communication strategy. Eric suggests having a clear communication strategy that is implemented early and regularly can make or break a change effort. This really can’t be overemphasized. When I work with organizations and ask about communication, it’s often sloughed off as if “been there, done that.” People will cite organizational newsletters, websites, meetings, without ever determining if anyone actually reads or pays attention to these things. Don’t take communication for granted. I led a team of about two dozen educators through an audit-type visit of a large school district in my state. The superintendent told me we should look for innovative use of technology. That he had been pushing for innovation since he got there. What we found was that communication–from the central office to the schools to the classrooms and back up that chain–was lacking and the top priority we encouraged this superintendent to consider in order to reach his goals. It turned out no one had the same idea of what innovation was and so any use of technology, from using an overhead projector on up, ended up being considered innovative. Not exactly what the superintendent had in mind.
  4. Design for early results. This was a unique suggestion Eric made that I would not have included, but makes perfect sense upon reflection. As an instructional designer, I incorporate strategies to motivate the learner based on the work of John Keller who developed the ARCS motivational design model (A = get the learners Attention, R = make the material Relevant, C = build the learner’s Confidence, S = ensure the learner is Successful.) I use this model often and try to be sure that the materials I develop allow the learner to be successful early. Start with small success to build motivation and increase complexity over time. Eric suggested a similar philosophy, noting that even if you can accomplish small or even temporary results early, they will build momentum for the initiative and help it keep moving forward. Same idea. I’m glad he applied it to capacity building.
Learning from Los AngelesUnfortunately, the Los Angeles Unified School District suffered through one of the least successful technology integration efforts perhaps in the history of schools–at least since personal computers were introduced into schools in the 80s. Costing more than a billion dollars and a much reported dismal failure–one that cost the superintendent his job–the one good thing that came out of the effort are some lessons learned. These five lessons were posted in Edutopia (Gliksman, 2014) and should serve as the basis for anyone planning any technology initiative in the future.

  1. Change starts with a vision.
  2. Top-down strategies rarely work without communication and consensus.
  3. Training requires more than an introductory “how-to” workshop.
  4. Technology should empower students.
  5. It’s not about the device.



ARCC. (July 18-19, 2013). Exploring the parameters of systemic change and capacity. Regional Systemic Capacity Seminar, Crystal City, VA.

Gliksman, S. (2014). The LAUSD iPad initiative: 5 critical technology integration lessons. Edutopia. Available from: http://www.edutopia.org/blog/lausd-ipad-technology-integration-lessons-sam-gliksman