On Thought Experiments and Russian Dolls

Planning instruction for twenty or thirty learners in one room, for one hour, on one day, is a challenge. And, when we talk about planning instruction for in-service days or professional development sessions in which schools invest considerable time and money, we might be talking about hundreds of participants, in various venues, from distinctly heterogeneous teaching backgrounds and many hours of instruction. It’s a significant challenge. However, as I have written about here, it’s a challenge that we must overcome.

Many of my thoughts about school leadership revolve around applying the same practices that make classroom instruction effective. Imagine it as a series of Russian Dolls – the practices at the classroom teacher-learner level a nested microcosm of the interactions at the professional teacher-teacher level. At my school, we have adapted Charlotte Danielson’s teacher evaluation rubric as part of our teacher appraisal process. However, what if something similar were created for professional development sessions or in-service days?

145493363 (1)

The purpose of the adaptation would be as follows:

  1. As a planning checklist for organising professional development sessions.
  2. As an in-depth reflection tool to rigorously assess the quality of any professional development session and for facilitators to adjust their practices accordingly.
  3. To articulate a shared understanding of the components of high quality professional development sessions.

I’d remove the evaluative aspect of a rubric, replacing it with a series of standards and guiding questions to encourage professional growth. Though there are a variety of schools of thought on the effectiveness of coaching versus supervision models for driving positive change, assuming you have the people in place willing to improve, it’s the feedback, not the ranking of progress, that will drive improvement. Now, I’m not saying you couldn’t construct an evaluative rubric, it’s just that a simpler, more professionally respectful starting point is to use standards as a supportive coaching tool, not an evaluative one.

And, if you followed my thinking, you might be left with something like this.

I wonder what insights are revealed by reflecting on the last professional development you facilitated ,or participated in, by examining it through this new lens?

Infographic summary




On Listening Carefully

Twice a year, I run a survey with my students to gain insight into their experience of my instructional practice. This isn’t the only time I seek feedback from them. I’m in the habit of asking for ‘pluses’ and ‘wishes’ every few months, as well as touching base with a few students at the classroom door to ask questions like, ‘Do you enjoy X activity?’, or, ‘Did you find Y helpful?’ The full survey, though, is a mash up of:

  1. Questions I’ve acquired/developed over the last ten years.
  2. Questions developed to align with our school’s version of domains two and three of Charlotte Danielson’s teacher evaluation rubric
  3. Some of the questions that came out of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s research into teacher appraisal

I developed essential agreements for our use of this survey in our own high school English department. Here is the Google form version of the survey itself, which you could copy if you wish.

5801518272 (1)

When I do the survey, I time it to coincide with student reports, so it becomes a moment of instructional quid pro quo. And, this year, I debriefed the survey with a small ‘focus’ group from each class. By seeking feedback on how I interpreted the students’ response, I noticed how it helped me to better understand and appreciate their perspective and experiences. One of the questions I found most valuable during this conversation was, ‘If I were to observe one colleague to help me become a better teacher, who would would it be?’ This made me think about how much more powerful professional development might be if we listened more systematically and more thoughtfully to the insights the students already have to offer us. They, after all, are the ones who have daily experience of our craft. So, I’m left wondering if high schools committed to on-going professional development could:

  1. Use teacher-tailored student voice surveys as a raison d’etre for collegial observations.
  2. Have teachers use student input to guide their own professional goal setting.
  3. Have teachers follow a student for a day once every year.

Does anyone already have experience of practices like these?

On Coaching and Growth

This post by Kim Cofino was shared by Tricia the other day. It set out the importance of coaching in a school context, specifically technology coaching, but it could apply equally well to other coaching contexts. In the post, Kim outlined four barriers to successful coaching models, and her thoughts on them. I’d like to add one final barrier to her list.

Our time and space for growth might be limited

We need both to be coached and to grow. As a profession, we systematically build in time to plan our lessons with scheduled ‘planning periods’. We also invest time and money into Professional Development (PD) in the form of workshops, meetings, consultants and the like. But, rarely do we build in (nor talk about) time specifically for individual professional growth on a routine basis. As a result, I wonder if we need to re-evaluate what ‘full-time’ means when the needs for continual professional growth are obviously necessary, and arguably, increasingly important. The problem with growth is that it doesn’t make a pile of marking disappear, a meeting run, a lesson plan materialise, nor online curriculum records update, but it does transform how they happen. Growth is quiet, often slow and unassuming, and though it’s not necessarily intangible, it can certainly be ethereal. In other words, it’s just the type of thing we could easily overlook and ignore.

Maybe, when we think about PD budgets, perhaps we need to factor in ‘growth costs’ and re-budget accordingly; reduce the amounts spent on PD input (e.g. workshops, external speakers) and invest more in the time and space needed for the desired outcome, i.e. ‘growth’. We don’t just need planning periods, but ‘growth periods’ too; an acknowledgement that scheduled time needs to be carved out for teachers to talk about their profession, throw ideas around, reflect, act on a coaching conversation, stare blankly at a wall, be aimless in ways that provoke creativity. Here’s the challenge then: school’s need to balance the books while providing the systematic and intentional time and space for growth.

If a school can rise to this challenge, I know where I’d like my children to be educated.

On Nourishing the Soul

Having just returned from an inspirational week visiting the work done by Second Chance in Berceni, Romania with a group of ten students, it strikes me how important it is not to shy away from frank discussions about a person’s character, conversations which are at best sensitive and, at worst, verging on the taboo. It’s more than a need to comment upon and guide behaviour, it’s the moral necessity to encourage growth in the fundamental virtues inherent to becoming a ‘good‘ person (not that there is an immutable, definitive list).

How did I do on this service learning trip? Not brilliantly, because I didn’t consistently apply the same thinking as I would regarding academic learning in the classroom.

  1. Insufficient pre-assessment. Like any group of people, some students are self-evidently more ‘virtuous’ than others. I had not intentionally considered where the students were in terms of the virtues necessary for the environment we were visiting, such as, the ability to be humble or to act with grace. Nor, importantly, had the students honestly pre-assessed their strengths and weaknesses prior to the visit.
  2. Insufficient differentiation. I did not have a plan in place for what personal growth would mean for each student due to the lack of pre-assessment. What are the student’s weaknesses? Their strengths? What growth is necessary? What might encourage that growth?
  3. Insufficient feedback. The overlap between teacher, counsellor and psychologist is never more apparent than in the realm of character education. So, a student acts gracelessly, or with wonderful grace, how should you provide appropriate feedback in an authentic manner? For each student, where is the line between an expectation met and one exceeded? How do you communicate that in a way that will be heard? Being able to navigate these decisions is as much an art as a science, but it cannot be done without some degree of intentionality.

Looking ahead, above all, I will seek to talk, talk and talk some more with the students about the idea of character. These coaching conversations should help them unpack their personal successes and shortcomings, with a view to educating more than the mind: to nourish their soul.

Thanks to @friedenglish101
Thanks to @friedenglish101 for the photo

On the Three and a Half Habits of Highly Effective Teachers

Habits can be a help and a hindrance. In the context of teaching, the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ can be summarised as follows: Good habits make effective teaching and learning practice more effortless; bad habits are those effortless actions that are a drain on effective teaching and learning practice.

However, what are we doing to form good habits, and break bad ones, both in ourselves and the communities we build in our classrooms? This Forbes’ piece here and James Clear’s thoughts here and here neatly summarise popular theories on habit formation. But, I’m interested in the types of habits we should seek to form. Inspired by Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, here’s my slightly more mundane, anecdotal Three and a Half Habits of Highly Effective Teachers.

#1) Eat Lunch with Colleagues, Everyday. You need to eat. You also need to press pause, even if it’s only for ten minutes. More importantly, eating with your colleagues is a fundamental social ritual that unites and builds community. Read this Atlantic article for some more family-centric thoughts.

#2) Be Flexibly Inflexible. Rules are rules. Except when they’re a) not and b) they have nothing to do with student learning. A highly effective teacher knows that the most flexible part of the system controls that system (think “steering wheel” and “car”); you know when to bend and when to pushback.

#3) Think Lose-Win(ish). You will always lose. Always. You cannot win and the sooner you unburden yourself of the ceaseless pressure of striving to, then you can start winning-ish. As Dylan Wiliams said, “This job you are doing is so hard that one lifetime isn’t enough to master it.” What does he mean? Your job satisfaction derives from embracing continuous improvement, so, let imperfection be your catalyst for future success.

#3 ½ ): Never Stop (exception, see rule #1). This is the meta-rule, the one rule to rule them all. Highly effective teachers are much like (most) sharks: if you stop swimming, you’ll drown. You must always be updating your practice otherwise the knowledge, understanding and skills that you are uncovering for your students will become swiftly irrelevant before you even know it.

Need this visually? See here.The Three and a Half Habits of Highly Effective Teachers Slide 1 The Three and a Half Habits of Highly Effective Teachers Slide 2 The Three and a Half Habits of Highly Effective Teachers Slide 3 The Three and a Half Habits of Highly Effective Teachers Slide 4 The Three and a Half Habits of Highly Effective Teachers Slide 5

On Catalysts and Imperfection

Perfectionism is one of those double-edged swords. My own perfectionism, I believe, has been a central driving force for my development as a teacher – a frequent quest to make what might already be ‘good enough’, better and better. My specific affliction has lead me to persevere, play with the big picture, dive into the details, sometimes over-think, often make things worse, but, on the whole, it has taught me a great deal through the tinkering trial and error that results. However, the downside throughout my career has always been the potential for paralysis, a desire to find perfection immediately, and, as a result, not starting something at all.

Why do I share this? Well, because there is a maxim (with an important caveat) that I’ve found helpful. I don’t know its origin, though a quick Google suggests that Harry S. Truman may have said something similar. Embarrassingly, it’s one of those things which you think you’ve stumbled upon yourself, but in fact is something that you picked up via cultural osmosis. It goes as follows (thanks Canva for the design tool):

Imperfect Action (1)

However, this is only half the story. I cannot unthinkingly embrace a ‘Cult of Failure’. By the way, on this point, Slate did a great piece pulling apart the decontextualisation of the following lines ‘repurposed’ from Beckett’s novella Worstward Ho:

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Regardless of the abundant ironies in the infamously pessimistic Beckett being parroted in this way, people are right to identify the learning that goes on as being crucial; the failing is the easy part, not the aspect with which you necessarily need encouragement. It’s this that is the caveat to the earlier maxim. Imperfection can never be your goal. It must be a stepping stone to something greater, now accessible because the brakes are off. You must be ready to persevere, to seek feedback from peers, to monitor and evaluate, to reflect carefully on any unintended outcomes. I think, if I were to capture it in another gnomic utterance, it would be as follows:ONE big

This also neatly captures why I’m blogging. How about you?

On Building Classroom Culture

It’s the start of a new academic year, so it’s time to forge those classroom communities. In my experience (filled with success and failure), to build a community you need to give students a sense of belonging, a recognition of potential adversity, ownership, and a vision that binds them together. To do this, try my 13 To Dos:

  1. Meet and greet students at the door, and be present to wish your students well as they leave. Always. Get to know what makes them wonderful.
  2. It sounds counter-intuitive, but make your classroom focused on embracing challenge, the possibility of failure and the potential uncertainties on the way to a common goal (aka students learning things). Nothing forges a group more than adversity.
  3. Be sure students understand that their individual input is required for any group success.
  4. Ask for, and act upon, student feedback on how the class is run.
  5. Be the passion you expect and…
  6. …. regularly allow students to share theirs in student-led presentations from their favourite book to current affairs. I have used this protocol – Hot Reads.
  7. Have fun together, with whole class quizzes and low-stake, friendly competitions, e.g. Kahoot or Quizlet Live. Even better, compete with other classes…
  8. Actively and intentionally coach students to collaborate in whole class, small group and paired discussions, for example with the 7 norms of collaboration.
  9. Reminisce at least once a year. I’ve run this Memory Cafe lesson to do this.
  10. Place student work on your walls, showcasing both exemplary work and on-going, imperfect products.
  11. Allow students to work in ways that honour the differences in how they might best contribute to the community. Sometimes this is alone. Often it’s as part of a group. Create classroom space for both.
  12. Maintain a comfortable, clean, welcoming classroom.
  13. Take and display photos of students working, smiling, having fun. The Google+ photo assistant will even create a GIF if you photo burst your target.

In summary, ask yourself the following three questions:

  • Do you have routines in place that allow the group to experience a sense of community?
  • Do you have a shared vision for success? 
  • Does the classroom space mirror and promote a community you all value?