This is the second in a three-part series on my reflections of coaching teachers. In 2016, I helped develop and launch the Dell Certification process for Mentors through my work with Advanced Learning Partnerships. The focus is to help new coaches develop skills to help others reach their goals. The first lesson learned was about what I see as the true role of coaches—to build the capacity of others to reach their goals. This second takes a nod from coaching expert Jim Knight.
Listen for Contradictions to Your Assumptions
The above is a piece of wisdom hidden in the work of Jim Knight’s (2007) popular book on instructional coaching. Most coaches I’ve met have read the book, many completing book studies on it. I’ve participated in several book studies with it myself, sometimes as a participant and sometimes as a facilitator. There are a lot of great ideas in the book and in the work of the Kansas Coaching Project (now the Instructional Coaching Project). Some day I may write about the value of Knight’s “Big 4,” which provide a hierarchical framework for beginning coaching conversations, but the idea of assumptions is one that deserves a bit of exploration.
“But first…a story.” (If you’re one of my former students, this is where you’d insert a groan.) After the classroom, I’ve been coaching different groups of educators for the better part of a decade. If you count back to the beginning of my teaching career, when some of my middle school boys referred to me as “the band coach,” then I’ve been doing it all my career. I was working with a new district this past year that had me literally running from one coaching visit at one school to the next over a series of 3-4 days. Luckily, the district have some excellent EdTech coaches that were able to build a stronger coaching bond with their teachers and could continue the coaching conversations in person when I couldn’t be there. It’s a tough model to implement—the outside expert—but it works well when there is someone on the ground between visits.
I tried to see each of the 30 or so teachers I was working with three times over a period of a few months. The goal was to help each teacher develop a personal goal for the coaching visits and to ultimately help them implement new skills in their classrooms, either with my help or having me observe at the end. As might be expected, the teachers ranged in their levels of technology proficiency and willingness to collaborate. One in particular seemed reluctant to meet, often finding last-minute scheduling conflicts, so I had to be persistent and flexible in order to get into her classroom.
At our last session, I watched as this English teacher led her students through a traditional grammar lesson followed by the exploration of a text in which students explored a website she had given them to explain historical references or figurative examples in a text they were reading. The students had to find specific examples and describe their genesis using the website and hand write their responses on paper. I was very underwhelmed. This was technology coaching, after all. There was very limited technology use, despite all the students having access to their own laptop and a district Google account with all the resources that provides.
In our debrief, I walked in with my assumptions clouding my vision. I assumed this teacher just didn’t want to try new technologies, didn’t trust me, and wasn’t going to make any progress on her goal. She had skipped our last session, after all, and this class just wasn’t what I had hoped to see. What unfolded, was just the opposite.
When I asked about the very traditional grammar lesson and whether she had tried other—perhaps technology-based—alternatives she commented enthusiastically that “Yes” indeed she had! She had picked up on the mention of an online grammar resource in our initial training sessions and said her kids had really enjoyed it, but they had exhausted the limits of the free version. She had convinced her principal to seek funds to provide access to the site for all teachers in the school. Wow.
When I asked about whether the kids might possibly find and record information in another way, perhaps using a shared Google doc and perhaps the research tools, as we had gone over earlier in the year (Harumph!), she commented that again, “Yes, they had been using Google docs.” But this lesson was more about building background knowledge and knowing her kids and some of their challenges simply with keyboarding and using the new resources, she thought the paper-based route would help them get through this foundational lesson quickly so she could apply that knowledge in a more substantial matter later when the tools would have greater benefit.
She thanked me for the resources that had been introduced and for the opportunity to work through some of them. Most of all she enjoyed collaborating with other teachers across the district and having the time to share ideas. She said the whole experience had really been beneficial to her. Just because what I saw that day didn’t set my little techno heart ablaze, it didn’t mean that this particular teacher hadn’t been pursuing her own goals for technology use. Again, it was a good lesson for me. I had to step back and refrain from imposing what may have been my goals for her. Not all teachers are going to be as enthusiastic about technology the way I am, but that doesn’t mean they can find ways to support teaching and learning in their classroom. As a coach, I need to remember to keep helping people move forward by making progress on their own goals, not necessarily to the same place I want to be, and especially to not assume that if I don’t see something that it’s not happening.
Knight, J. (2007). Instructional coaching. A partnership approach to improving instruction. NSDC.