Observing Through a Coaching Lens: 8 Ideas to Lift the Level of Conversation and Transform Practice

Reflecting on Observations

This is my 16th year in education and it is safe to say that my growth and development as a human being and educator rests on the shoulders of those who generously took the time to ask me about what worked well and what didn’t. They gave me the time and space to freely collaborate, think, reflect, and embrace my successes and failures (and there were many). When considering all of the productive conversations I have had about teaching and learning, I have discovered that there were a handful of observations that lifted the level of my instruction and landed at the forefront of my mind. I have been formally observed approximately 35 times over the course of my career. The conversations that moved me forward weren’t necessarily the ones that involved a formal write-up or rubric. It was the in-the-moment dialogue, the reciprocal nature of those meaningful exchanges, and the authenticity of the process that led me to taking new paths to a destination.

Shifting the Observation Narrative

I’ll admit, the trajectory of my career has been beautiful. Having served many communities in different roles, I quickly recognized that each building had a wide range of strengths and opportunities for growth. Having been a teaching assistant, classroom teacher, elementary and middle school literacy specialist, instructional coach, and mentor coordinator K-12, these experiences have collectively afforded me opportunities to speak with a plethora of administrators, teachers, mentors, students, and families who have impacted the way I approach teaching and learning. Throughout this time, I have considered many different perspectives, sifted through various curricula, collaborated on the writing of curricula, have attended and presented many professional learning experiences, and have coached and taught many teachers and students. I have also recognized that every educator adds value to a conversation, and those who serve on the frontlines have tremendous insight into where they need to grow. As I stepped into the role of assistant principal this year, my journey has led me to think about how I can shift the narrative of observations and ask myself, How can I be the administrator I always needed during the observation process? AND How can I capitalize on my teaching and coaching experiences to elevate and support the educators I serve?

I have always appreciated the role of a coach, a thinking partner, a knowledgeable colleague who can help me see things differently than I may have seen them before. Before I proceed, allow me to share Jim Knight’s definition of a coach from his website:

Grounding the Work

An instructional coach is a dedicated partner for teachers, providing evidence-based practices that improve teaching and learning so students everywhere can be more successful.

Before I share some ideas, let me be clear that I am not embarking on this work alone. My principal and I are approaching observations through a coaching lens together. This is a shared experience that will ultimately support and cultivate a culture of collaboration that will directly impact student achievement. As we move this important work forward together, we recognize that this is a journey and we have only planted the seeds for experiences we will continue to develop and grow.

Observing Through a Coaching Lens: 8 Ideas to Lift the Level of Conversation & Transform Practice

CLICK HERE to print out the card for discussion

  1. Less Evaluative and More Collaborative: Approach conversations as a thinking partner. There are no titles in teaching and learning discussions. Keep the conversations focused on the learner and the learning. In the book Innovate Inside the Box by George Couros and Dr. Katie Novak, George identifies 3 critical areas for learning by educators and why they are crucial. 1. Learn about our students 2. Learn for our students 3. Learn from our students. The same applies during a collaborative conversation between an administrator and teacher: 1. Learn about our teachers 2. Learn for our teachers 3. Learn from our teachers. There is no one who knows themselves and their learners better than the teacher themselves.
  2. Root in the Mission and Vision: When I was onboarded to the assistant principal role, one of the 1st documents my principal shared with me was the District’s mission and vision. I am still in awe of the time, thought, and collaborative effort that had gone into creating this document. This isn’t a document that is simply just posted on the District website. This is a document that lives and breathes in every conversation we embark on. The language and meaning are easily embedded into observations, informal conversations, professional learning experiences, and presentations. In discussing teaching and learning with teachers and planning instruction, we look back at the mission and vision together and intentionally reflect on student outcomes. Is the planning, process, and evidence a reflection of what we believe in as a school District?
  3. Bridge Building Level Goals: When discussing the mission and vision, it is vital to communicate and bridge the building level goals with the discussion. As teachers are planning, executing, and responding in real time during lessons, having a building level focus such as “student-generated questioning” or “enhancing evidence-informed practices” or “delivering intentional small group instruction” (to name a few) can keep the goals of the conversation grounded and the planning and preparation more focused.
  4. Target Priority Standards: It is recognized that there are a significant number of standards that learners are expected to be exposed to, explore, and in many cases master by the end of a school year. Zoom in on the priority standards and keep the conversation rooted in what standards are critical in helping learners access more complex skills. Consider creating a digital folder of standards that teachers can have access to while planning lessons in one space. Having the standards available will also help guide the conversation to the assessment component of the lesson. It may lead to the question, How will you know if students are accessing the standard during and after the lesson?
  5. Value Teachers as Guides: Allow the teachers to guide the observation conversations. Let them talk about the teaching and learning that transpires in their rooms. Let them share what they are most proud of and what they feel are areas of growth based on student evidence. These authentic discussions show teachers that you value their expertise that could lead to a more organic experience.
  6. Consider Multiple Pathways to Feedback: After an observation, I will never leave a classroom without naming the goodness I saw. I never make the teacher wait to get an observation write up to know what their impact was during that lesson. I talk directly to the teacher and students. I name the work I saw through the experience. “It was amazing to see you using accountable talk stems to lift the level of each other’s thinking together. I can see you and your teacher have been working hard at actively listening to one another so you can add on to the discussion in meaningful ways.” I am also a fan of leaving a digital note, handwritten note, or Voxer message (walkie talkie app) and sending it right to the teacher’s email directly after the lesson. This lets the teacher know that you appreciated being in the room and shows you are a true learning partner in the process.
  7. Growth Through Coaching Conversations: Ask good questions that will spark learner-driven conversations. They will lead you to identifying and focusing on a problem of practice. Questions such as: What worked well for you during our collaboration and coaching cycle? How has your teaching been positively impacted? How do you feel our collaboration has positively impacted the students? What were any challenges or missed opportunities during our work together? What are some next steps in your teaching?
  8. Recommend Relevant Resources: Like a teacher, every instructional leader should have a bag of tricks available and ready to support and grow an educator during any given conversation. Keeping yourself well-versed on up-to-date articles, books, and practical resources teachers can use to apply in their classroom TOMORROW is a great investment in the teaching and learning deposit box. Recently I recommended Evolving Education by Dr. Katie Martin to a teacher. After watching a lesson that was learner-driven, personalized, and innovative, I wanted to be able to get a seasoned teacher to productively seek out new ways to take incredible existing practices and make small shifts that will have big impact. As this particular teacher is reading the book, she is sharing what parts resonated and how she is implementing some of the ideas. For example, she took the School Learner Profile exemplar on page 16 of the book AND our District mission and vision, and created a learner profile that was in line with her classroom community values.

Moving Forward

So I ask school leaders, will you consider working to shift the narrative of observations by observing through a coaching lens? Every interaction you have as a coach and thinking partner is an opportunity to build community, lift the level of conversations, and transform practices in the most meaningful, productive ways. As my principal shared with our staff, “Michael Phelps’ coach is not better than him at swimming, he is there to support his growth and provide feedback so he can be better.” He is there to help him see things he can’t see himself.

Great Leaders Give You Wings

“Many leaders are scared about developing people and then having them leave. They should be more worried about not developing people and having them stay.” A few months ago, I was scrolling through Twitter and immediately copied this quote from George Couros’ tweet and pasted it right into the notes section of my phone. I read it several times, and then I read it some more. 

What Resonated?

There was something about the sentiment above that resonated with me. Could it be because I recently left a school district where I thought I would retire to embark on a new educational journey as a school leader? Could it be that it’s because I served in many roles throughout my career and thought about all of the educators who have motivated me to take risks, try new things, share my learning and gifts with others, while helping to pave the way to advocate for my personal and professional growth? Could it have been the leaders’ ability to clearly communicate a vision and develop that vision with the staff and students? Was it that these exceptional leaders included all of the appropriate stakeholders in the decision making process instead of having a few people “in the room where it happens? Perhaps it’s because these words encouraged me to reflect on the qualities those inspiring leaders possessed to help guide me and others to a new direction. Perhaps it was their ability to foster relationships within the school community by ensuring everyone felt invited and welcomed. Maybe it was their strong instructional lens that would enable them to be viewed as credible instructional leaders who had a firm grasp on teaching and learning and could teach students and staff at any given time. Was it their ability to leave their ego at the door by focusing on people, not titles, putting trust in others, and continuously building capacity from within? I think all of these attributes of great leaders I’ve encountered contributed to the leaps of faith I have taken throughout my career.

Here are some more of my observations about Leaders Who Develop Leaders:

They…

  1. Optimize, not criticize
  2. Give recognition
  3. Show sincere appreciation
  4. Value other perspectives
  5. Show humility, vulnerability, and talk about their own mistakes
  6. Ask questions and make suggestions
  7. Celebrate big and small wins
  8. Give honest feedback

In the book Lead From Where You Are: Building Intention, Connection, and Direction in Our School, Dr. Joe Sanfelippo shares, “Finding those who push your thinking and support you in the journey is key to moving forward–and transforming your school community into a group of potential leaders.” Joe is right. There are those who we meet along the way who become a vital part of your team. Whether they come into your life for a few moments, a few hours, a few days, weeks, or years, these are people who can make a profound impact on your growth and development as a professional and human being. They see something in you… they can see the spark that ignites ideas and your ability to change the trajectory of the lives of others. They see that you can rally people together to create meaningful change. They see your positive spirit, your ability to listen to understand, and an action oriented approach to creation and innovation. Great leaders view themselves as thinking partners as you navigate the ebbs and flows of an ever changing educational landscape. They are helping you row in the direction you want to be in while keeping kids at the core of the journey. Dr. Sanfelippo brilliantly added the following reflective questions, “The question is not, are you going to be remembered as the leader in your space? The question is, how are you going to be remembered as the leader in your space?” So I ask you, what type of leader do you want to be? If you choose to commit to recognizing the gifts in others and see the value they bring to your organization, will you give them wings and let them fly?

4 Ways Leaders Can Create Cultures of Learning Ecosystems

I have always valued leaning into the people in our organizations for support as we continue to navigate an evolving educational landscape. However, as a new administrator, I have come to recognize more than ever that there is a tremendous positive impact on our system when we collectively build social capital and rely on each other’s strengths to personalize and meet the needs of our learners and colleagues. 

We live in learning ecosystems; infrastructures influenced by purpose, relationships, new understandings, collaboration, innovation, and response to the challenges we endure.

Our ecosystems are a collection of people, perspectives, knowledge, skills, hopes, and desires for the future; when we intentionally leverage the gifts of our teams, we have the ability to strengthen our circle of influence and the communities in which we serve. Creating a culture of interdependence and “we” can rest on the shoulders of the leadership within learning ecosystems. In Stephen R. Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, he defines interdependence, “Interdependence is the paradigm of wewe can do it; we can cooperate; we can combine our talents and abilities and create something greater together.”  

How can leaders create a culture that supports educators to live in learning ecosystems that grow through challenges and thrive in the face of change? 

Create the Right Conditions

Instructional leadership is about creating the conditions that motivate and encourage educators to improve, thrive, fail, and reflect. In the book Essential Truths for Principals by Danny Steele and Todd Whitaker, they say, “Instructional leadership is not about being an expert though; it is about cultivating the expertise in your building. It is about creating a culture of collaboration where teachers learn from one another and inspire one another.” Leaders will not have all of the answers, but they will ask some really good questions. They will empower teachers to take the lead on pursuing their interests, finding their passions, and develop solutions to instructional barriers. 

Ideas:

  • Create optional meeting times that provide a platform for sharing best practices; perhaps a book club or discussion of a brief article may spark some ideas 
  • 10 minute intervisitations with a targeted focus can help support and grow instructional practices  

Question for Reflection:

How can you create spaces for educators to share and leverage their strengths and struggles?

Embrace the Small Things

In my recent blog, It’s the Small Things, I share, “You see, it’s the small wins that add up to the big things. When you love what you do, you have the motivation to remain courageous in your convictions. Even the setbacks you experience have the potential to become aha moments that fuel new ideas and catapult your drive for the person you wish to become. It’s the small things that pave the way to the big things.” Leaders can recognize that every interaction big and small makes a difference in the work we do EVERY DAY. Take advantage of creating personal connections and finding JOY and PURPOSE in the present as Joe Sanfelippo advises in THIS inspiring brief video tweet. School culture is created in little moments of gratitude and appreciation.

Ideas:

  • Leave a handwritten note in someone’s mailbox or send them a voice note on Voxer with a compliment and/or noticing
  • Skip the email and have personal conversations: ex. visit classrooms and give “in the moment” feedback. Tell that person what it is that you saw and appreciated. “It is so awesome when you…tell me more about this!” 

Question for Reflection:

What small things can you do to contribute to building a strong school culture?

Lead with Heart

In the book The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros, he says “Empathetic teachers think about the classroom environment and learning opportunities from the point of view of the student, not teacher.” This notion made me think: Empathetic leaders think about the school environment and learning opportunities from the point of view of the teacher, not the leader. Couros goes on to say, “New ideas start with understanding the needs of those you serve.” Leaders who continue to recognize people are at the heart of the work and are each other’s greatest resources will see learning and innovation flourish. Include educators in the decision making and listen to their ideas because they are true professionals with vast experiences on the front lines. 

Ideas:

  • Ask teachers: What do you look for in a school leader? How can I support your learning and growth? What are you passionate about? How can we leverage your strengths to support our professional learning community?
  • Let Teachers Lead: Create opportunities for teachers to take risks trying new practices, share their learning within and beyond their school communities, and present their ideas in a variety of formats.

Question for Reflection:

Would you want to be a teacher in your own school?

Communicate by Coaching

One of the best experiences I have had on my educational journey was serving as an instructional coach. When educators embrace a coaching mindset, I have seen first-hand how coaching moves can positively impact an educator’s teaching and learning practices. Although part of an instructional leader’s role is to be evaluative, I personally have never grown from a conversation that was approached in that way.  As Jim Knight says, “Instructional coaches partner with teachers to analyze current reality, set goals, identify and explain teaching strategies to hit the goals, and provide support until the goals are met.” When educators are approached as thinking partners in the learning process, there is a more productive return on investment. Creating a coaching culture paves the way to a work atmosphere that is filled with possibilities, fosters collaboration, creativity, risk-taking, and a sense of empowerment. This approach unlocks the unlimited potential in both the administrator and teacher. 

Ideas:

  • Language to use in formal and informal conversations: “I am here to be a thinking partner and learn from and with you, When I enter you classroom, I can’t wait to learn from and with you and your students”
  • When giving feedback: I am wondering if…I noticed that… What are your thoughts about…? As a result of our conversation, what instructional practices do you think you could implement moving forward?

Question for Reflection:

What communication moves can you employ that pave the way to learner-driven environments?

Click HERE to print cards for discussion

Choosing Your Ecosystem

When living in your school learning ecosystem, you have a choice; you can choose to lead others to be dependent, solely needing the help of others to grow; you can choose to lead others in being independent, getting what they need through their own efforts and/or you can choose to lead people to be interdependent, combining their own efforts with others to achieve collective success. How will you choose to live in your learning ecosystem?

Mentorship Matters: 8 Pieces of Advice For New Teachers-Series 3

This blog series is being written from my perspective as I am a Mentor Coordinator K-12 in a school district in Long Island, N.Y. I will share my experiences as my mission and vision are to continuously develop a Mentor Program that will build a strong foundation to support educators during their first years of teaching and for the rest of their educational journeys. Refer to the Mentor Program tabs,#LBLeads 2019-2020 and#LBLeads 2020-21 in my digital portfolio as a window into my experiences. Refer to my previous blogs in this series titled Mentorship Matters: 8 Tips for Developing a Strong Mentor Program-Series 1 and Mentorship Matters: The 6 Cs to Successful Mentor/Mentee Relationships-Series 2 for insight into how to develop a strong Mentor Program and develop Mentor/Mentee relationships.

The Invisible Roadmap

Think back to your first years of teaching. Were you ever handed a roadmap to success? I remember thinking that I’d enter the school building on my very first day and be given a handbook that would include secret magical ingredients to the perfect recipe for becoming a successful educator. Well, that never happened because it just doesn’t exist! Even after experiencing years of schooling, internships, student teaching adventures, and a lot of reading, I know now that nothing really prepares a new educator more than being thrown right into the trenches. I am pretty sure that every educator who has ever had their own classroom of learners understands that it’s a tremendous responsibility that is both gratifying and overwhelming at the same time. Also, anyone who gets placed in a position to influence the lives of children must recognize that they have been given the unique opportunity to make an everlasting impact. Moments of influence and impact have the potential to live within learners for the rest of their lives. Those gifts live within great educators and are waiting to be unwrapped at the right place, at the right time, with the right people! Those moments cannot be prescribed in any handbook or roadmap to success because there is no winning in education and learning. According to Simon Sinek, author of The Infinite Game, education is not finite. There is no beginning, middle, and end because the players, curricula, policies and procedures, are continuously changing. Rather, education is an infinite game because there is no finish line or end. “Infinite games have infinite time horizons. And because there is no finish line, no practical end to the game, there is no such thing as “winning” an infinite game. In an infinite game, the primary objective is to keep playing to perpetuate the game” (p.4). So who is responsible for creating the invisible roadmap to success?

Mentors Are Everywhere

Although New York State provided me with a formal mentor when I was a new teacher, I was fortunate to have many educators around me who I viewed as mentors. They too shared words of wisdom, resources, and new ideas that would impact the way I chose to approach teaching and learning for the rest of my career. As a matter of fact, I perceive every single educator I have ever come into contact with since the beginning of my career as a mentor. Why is that? Some have gifted me with pieces of advice that I will indefinitely hold close, while others have modeled practices that I would never even consider employing. That being said, I have taken all of the wisdom that’s been shared with me over the years and created an open roadmap that includes 8 pieces of advice for new teachers!

Discover the How

I call this an “open road map” of advice because these are only suggestions, a framework, a guide. These are signposts that will point any new educator toward the right direction, but it will be ultimately up to them to choose their path and decide what kind of educator they want to be. That’s the beautiful part about being an educator. Educators come with different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. Educators see the world from a unique lens and approach their practice with stories that push on their hearts. The open roadmap will provide the “what” and the “why” for those who plan to approach education with an infinite mindset. It is up to the educator and the mentors who are placed in their paths along the way to discover the “how”. My hope is that this open roadmap of advice can be placed into the hands of the mentors who are helping build strong foundations for educators and any new teachers who are committed to lifelong learning and view the process as a journey. Let this be advice to inspire you to imagine what the future could hold for yourself and the people you will continue to influence throughout your career.

8 Pieces of Advice for New Teachers

1. Keep Connections at the Core: Getting to know your learners, their families, stories, passions, and interests will show them that you are human first and that you care. Be that person who wears an empathy lens. Be that person who will take the time to walk in the shoes of every student and colleague who crosses your path. By creating those connections and cultivating meaningful relationships, you are opening the pathways to deeper learning and exponential growth!

2. Embrace the Community: Make an effort to get to know the vision and mission at the community, district, and building levels. The people who make up the culture and climate of your organization are trying to row in the same direction to best serve the students! Every role in an organization is important and should be valued. You are now part of a team and it certainly takes a village to provide students with the right opportunities to thrive. You do not have to work in isolation. Observe and talk with the people around you; you will be surprised about how much you will learn from them. Those conversations will stretch your thinking and have an immediate impact on your role. You will also have a better understanding about who you can turn to for direction and advice when you need it! Also, for additional support, consider joining an online community like Chuck Poole’s Facebook Group Teacher’s Success Lounge or Rachelle Dene Poth’s Thrive in EDU Facebook Group. There may be people in those spaces that embrace and invite other thinking partners.

3. Build a Network: Although having an outstanding formal mentor is crucial to the growth process, it is vital to connect and collaborate with other educators and staff members in your educational communities. Everyone has knowledge and gifts to share. We are truly better together. Try not to compare yourself to others. According to Theodore Roosevelt, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” We are not here to compete! We are here for kids! Just like we have different friends for various reasons (those who make us laugh, seek advice from, listen to understand, talk so we don’t have to), the same holds true for the educators we meet. Find those people in your organization who can make you better and help you see and learn other practices and perspectives. Also, consider expanding your network by using one or more social media platforms. Twitter has been a gamechanger for me. I have met some of the most impactful people to push my thinking in ways I never knew they could. Some have also become great friends! The #EduTwitter space can be overwhelming, but when you find the right network, it can be magical! Just remember, great minds don’t always think alike, they think differently too!

4. Discover and Document: One of the best things I was afforded the opportunity of doing was watching other great educators teach! Inter-visitations, lab sites, and debriefing time will allow you to discover and embed new practices into your repertoire of teaching and learning tools! If this doesn’t happen in your school district, ask! Perhaps your administrators can arrange for it (even virtually). If you are lucky enough to have Instructional Coaches, ask them if they could organize this authentic learning experience, but also invite them to come in and offer you constructive feedback. I always loved when my coaches and peers gave me new ideas. They encouraged me to try new approaches and made me better! Also, you may want to consider creating a digital portfolio. A digital portfolio will allow you to document and think about your learning in the most intentional and meaningful ways. I am grateful to George Couros for encouraging me to recently start mine after 14 years in education! Luckily I took his incredible Digital Portfolio Master Course where he walked me through the process of why I should create one and how I can use it! The experience has been reflective and allows me to create a digital footprint of my students’ and my own learning. It’s never too late to start! Don’t think too hard about it. Just jump right in and make it happen… you won’t be sorry!

5. Pursue Professional Development: I am fortunate to work in a school district that provides a tremendous amount of professional development for all teachers. My Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, Dr. Paul Romanelli sees the value in offering a wide range of courses that fit with the district vision and meet the needs of the staff and student population. He believes in empowering and elevating the teachers within the district coupled with bringing in great educators and thought leaders from outside of the organization to facilitate targeted professional learning experiences. Together, we also make sure that the Mentor Program provides appropriate, relevant, and innovative PD for our new teachers. I am also a big believer in not waiting for your school district to provide professional development for you. I REPEAT. Do not wait! If there is something out there that will help meet the needs of your learners and you, then pursue it and find it! Then, ask if you can attend it! Twitter has been a space to professionally grow and it’s FREE! Consider joining a Twitter chat that is rooted in a topic you are interested in! I personally enjoy #CultureEd, #FutureReady, #G2Great, #Empathetic_Educators, and #Read2Lead (just to name a few). Read professional books, articles, blog posts, and listen to podcasts. In my previous blog post, What Are Educators Doing? I mention some of my favorite professional learning resources! If you are having difficulty finding a professional learning opportunity that meets your needs, then consider CREATING IT!! You should always be in the driver’s seat of your learning!

6. Be a Mirror: Think about all of the educators who have influenced your practice. You may have not even met some of them yet! I know that some of the great educators who have made the most impact on me have only come into my life recently. The thought of meeting more people I don’t know yet is exciting! Think about why those people have been an important part of your journey. What did they say or do to influence the choices you make on a daily basis? Take the best qualities of all of those educators, mirror those attributes, and make them your own! If possible, reach out to those people and tell them exactly why and how they have inspired you. They will be happy to hear it! Sometimes, we don’t recognize the impact we are having when we are in the moment. Be the mirror and best versions of all of those people!

7. Celebrate Successes and Failures: It is crucial to give yourself recognition for all successes big and small! This is hard work and you should be able to share those amazing moments of growth and awe with those who support and cheer you on! There is nothing more gratifying than knowing you have made a difference in the lives of your students and colleagues alike. At the same time, you must consider that when you enter the field of education, be prepared to fail at things many times throughout your career. THIS IS A GOOD THING. I repeat. THIS IS A GOOD THING. When you aren’t failing, it means that you are not trying new things. It means that you are comfortable with the status quo. It means that you are not pushing yourself outside your comfort zone. So celebrate success AND failure. You earned it!

8. Pause and Reflect: Educators are working hard and exhausting all of the minutes in their precious days. Great educators also have servant hearts and are usually thinking about everyone else’s needs but their own. Take the time to pause and reflect. That means, take a break! Pursue your personal passions and interests, practice self-care in the best way it suits you. This will look different for everyone. Some will indulge in their favorite exercise routines or go on a shopping spree. Others will take a painting class, read for pleasure, and/or write a blog like I am right now! The point is, whatever makes you happy on the inside, whatever pleasures your heart, do it! Taking that break to focus on YOU will actually make you a better educator than you were before!

Mentorship Matters: 8 Tips for Developing a Strong Mentor Program-Series 1

This blog series is being written from my perspective as I was a Mentor Coordinator K-12 in a school district in Long Island, N.Y. I will share my experiences as my mission and vision was to continuously develop a Mentor Program that will build a strong foundation to support educators during their first years of teaching and for the rest of their educational journeys. Refer to the Mentor Program tabs, #LBLeads 2019-2020 and #LBLeads 2020-21 in my digital portfolio as a window into my experiences.

Making the Commitment

Every year, school districts around the world entrust thousands of new educators to serve their communities as they hire and provide them with a special opportunity to begin long, meaningful educational careers. Most likely, these educators have endured rigorous processes that have determined that they are capable of making an unmistakable and everlasting impact on the lives of the world’s most precious gifts….children.  Make no mistake about it, when one makes a commitment to becoming an educator, they are assuming a tremendous responsibility to create pathways of promise that have the power to influence learners for the rest of their lives. 

A Calling
Teaching is not just something you do, it’s a calling; it’s a beautiful gift; it’s an opportunity to unleash the talents within every human being you encounter; it’s a time to cultivate powerful relationships that have the chance to stand the test of time; teaching creates a space to collaborate with colleagues and builds bridges to connect previous learning to new and innovative ideas. Educators are responsible for shaping significant moments in time that can leave profound imprints in the hearts and minds of every learner they touch. Teaching is also hard work. It can be extremely emotional. It can be draining. But, it’s so incredibly rewarding. That being said, how can school districts build on the strengths of new teachers while providing them with the appropriate support for continuous growth and development? There is one phrase that comes to mind: Mentorship Matters!

Why Mentorship Matters

Developing a strong mentor program has one of the highest returns on investment. Leveraging the creation of powerful professional learning communities will foster the next generation of teacher leaders and help educators see the value of being in a constant state of learning and transformation. According to the New York State Mentoring Standards, “Teacher induction is critical to the overall preparation and professional development of beginning teachers and builds on their continuum of experiences from pre-service programs to ongoing career development spanning time as described within the Teacher Career Development Continuum. Coupled with mentoring standards, induction accelerates the process of creating highly effective teachers whose goal is to enhance student learning and achievement.” Establishing and implementing a strong mentor program enables novice teachers to be guided by mentors to help learners reach their maximum social-emotional, cognitive, and academic growth throughout their school years and beyond. This distinguished responsibility empowers more experienced educators to take everything they have learned and “pay it forward,” to help new teachers acclimate to the culture and climate of an organization, shatter the walls of isolation during the inception of their careers, and shape the next generation of teacher leaders.

8 Tips for Developing a Strong Mentor Program

8 Tips for Developing a Strong Mentor Program

  1. Align with State Mentoring Standards– It is paramount to refer to the Mentoring Standards provided by the state/country you reside in. These standards offer a set of guidelines that are critical to teacher induction and to the design and implementation of relevant and meaningful learning experiences. This enables the Mentor Coordinator to establish systemic efforts that will shape and sustain the first experiences in the careers of new teachers. 
  1. Voice and Choice– It is vital to include educators in the decision making process to share what kinds of professional learning they want to experience. It is also critical to recognize that educators enter the teaching profession with many strengths and areas for growth. It is also the responsibility of the Mentor Coordinator to ensure that the professional learning choices are grounded in the vision and mission of your school district. As an example, providing educators with a Google Form with a list of choices as well as a space to add any additional thoughts/ideas for professional growth will empower them to take ownership over their learning.
  1. Professional Learning Communities- By establishing a learner-centered culture of trust, connection, communication, and collaboration, educators have an opportunity to see the value in intentionally creating spaces to collectively set reasonable, learner-driven, evidence informed goals and share ideas of instructional practice that will benefit ALL learners in their organizations they live in. Not only will this improve the skills, expertise, and knowledge through professional dialogue, it will foster a desire to improve educational aspirations, achievement, and cultivate the next generation of teacher leaders. These teacher leaders will become an integral part of a cycle that improves and encourages innovative teaching and learning practices.
  1. Select a Professional Book as a Framework- One of the most valuable components of a strong Mentor Program is to find timeless professional books by outstanding authors who can share their authentic experiences as educators at different levels of an organization. These are books that encompass innovative and relevant messages that will stand the test of time regardless of what transpires in education. These leaders in education bring a special and unique value to the learning experiences you commit to embark on. Take a deep dive into these books and be sure to connect the messages of the authors with your district’s mission and vision. These are the books that will serve as frameworks to drive the learning process. The books I intentionally chose are The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros and Personal and Authentic by Thomas C. Murray. Both of these authors have shared incredible resources and have been continuously accessible and supportive to the new teachers, their mentors, and me in our efforts to keep learners at the heart of decision-making and implement lifelong practices that will prepare learners for any path they choose to create.
  1. Invite Other Voices- It is crucial to highlight the educators within your organization to facilitate professional learning experiences. This provides new teachers with opportunities to connect with other educators across the school district, but also elevates the teacher leaders and administrators that can share their knowledge and best teaching and learning practices with your educational community. Additionally, you will want to invite educators/speakers outside of your school district who can offer a fresh perspective on various topics in education. Those voices are also valued as they have seen the work of other school districts around the world and can share a lens that can push your thinking outside of your comfort zones!
  1. Create a Digital Footprint: I have always stressed the importance of making your learning visible by sharing best teaching and learning practices with colleagues in your organization and beyond. By creating a Mentor Program hashtag and Twitter handle, this allows participants in the program to showcase the incredible work within their learning spaces to a larger community. This will in turn help other educators create and form ideas that will ultimately benefit all learners! Feel free to check out the #LBLeads and @LBMentorProgram hashtag I created for the Mentor Program I facilitate.
  1. Connected and Networked: In The Innovator’s Mindset, George Couros says, “Being in spaces where people actively share ideas makes us smarter.” Social media provides a space to connect with other educators who can share our mindsets, but also push our thinking to create new and better ideas. It is in these spaces where we can get inspiration from other educators and organizations outside of education to try something we haven’t thought of before. Creating a culture of learning and innovation happens when meaningful connections are made beyond the walls of the organizations we live in. It is within these spaces that new possibilities are discovered to benefit learners who have the potential to make change today and in the future!
  1. Give Recognition: Everyone within an educational organization works tirelessly to meet the needs of their learners. New teachers are acclimating to the culture and climate of a district, are learning to understand their community, are building new relationships, learning new standards, and a new curriculum, while meeting the needs of all families and students. They deserve all the recognition in the world! Celebrate your teacher leaders. It is human nature to want to feel valued and recognized. At Mentor Meetings, highlight the work they have been doing by looking through the hashtag you created and put those tweets on a few slides! Have them explain their “why” behind their practices. For the educators who are not on social media, have them send pictures of their work and get their permission to share! The return on this investment of time will be monumental! 
Chapter 1 Book Quote– Personal and Authentic by Thomas C. Murray

Reimagining the Magic of the Workshop Model Series 3: Non-Negotiables in Physical and Virtual Spaces

Special Note:  This is blog post entry 3 of a blog series titled: Reimagining the Magic of the Workshop Model. Blog post 1 in the series can be found here: Reimagining the Magic of the Workshop Model Series 1: Inviting Change.  Blog post 2 can be found here: Reimagining the Magic of the Workshop Model Series 2: Rallying Learners and Building Community. This blog post series is written from my perspective, as I teach face-to-face and virtual cohorts of middle school learners simultaneously.

Like the Speed of Light

Recently, the educational landscape we have always known has been challenged and has shifted faster than we could have ever comprehended…way beyond our imaginations. It’s as if we have instantaneously soared into a virtual learning universe that seems faster than the speed of light. Did you know that the speed of light in a vacuum is 186,282 miles per second, and in theory, nothing travels faster than light? So, if we were actually able to travel at the speed of light, you could go around the Earth 7.5 times in one second. This seems incomprehensible, doesn’t it? Well, wasn’t there once a time where many of the practices we employed in education seemed light-years away? The fact of the matter is that education has always evolved and changed, yet, those deviations seemed much easier to consume and digest because they happened more gradually. On the other hand, in the spring of 2020, educators were urgently launched into another dimension of teaching and learning. We were left questioning whether or not the instructional practices we have always held close to our hearts would still be significant in virtual and physical spaces. We were left questioning whether we could connect with learners and develop meaningful relationships. We were left questioning whether or not we could honor the teaching frameworks that have historically impacted learners in positive ways. We were left questioning if the resources we have worked so hard to curate throughout our years of teaching would still be compatible virtually. We were left wondering how we could monitor and track learning through meaningful formative and summative assessments. 

What I Know Now

For me, the first question that stirred within was whether or not educators would be able to keep the magic of the workshop model alive in our new physical and virtual atmospheres. As I continue to question, reflect, revise, and shift how I approach cultivating relationships, analyze curriculum, deliver instruction, and administer assessments, I know now more than ever that no matter where our learning spaces exist, it is up to us, the educators to embrace it. I know now, it is up to us to own it. I know now, it is up to us to navigate this new territory with open hearts, flexible minds, and positive spirits. I know now that it is up to us to take the instructional practices we know have always worked, and fine-tune our techniques to meet the needs of ALL learners throughout the process.  And since I am knee-deep into the experience of  Hyflex teaching, the philosophy and implementation of the Workshop Model can be achieved by keeping these 6 non-negotiables at the core of the work.

6 Non-Negotiables in Physical and Virtual Spaces

(Click on the link above for access to the infographic)

Connection Before Content– When you place cultivating relationships and building community front and center, it is likely that you will leave a lasting impact on the learners you encounter throughout your educational career. I am pretty sure that the legacy we choose to leave is not in the time we took to plan and execute a lesson; it is not in the homework or assessments we assigned or graded; I am positive that it is in the time we took to get to know our students as human beings first. If you commit to leading with passion and empathy. If you take the time to find common ground. If you create inviting, safe, nurturing learning spaces for ALL learners, you will see a big return on your investment. In a recent Future Ready podcast titled Universally Designed Connection and Reflection with Brianna Hodges and Dr. Katie Novak, Dr. Novak brilliantly and simply states,  “If you can connect with students, then that’s a good enough tool right now.” Learners have an emotional compass and will use social referencing to take cues from adults they admire. With that being said, by connecting and sharing your authenticity and passion, students will believe in and be an integral part of the magic in the important work that lies ahead.

Honor the Architecture– When planning and executing a minilesson, keep in mind that the content, focus, and/or space may change, but the architecture of the minilesson and it’s components don’t! In the book Leading Well: Building Schoolwide Excellence in Reading and Writing by Lucy Calkins, (written before the COVID-19 global pandemic, but still remains true) she says, “When teachers lead effective minilessons, these short bursts of instruction will mobilize the whole community to be on fire as readers and writers and will immerse the kids in an understanding of the work they are doing” (p. 69). However, keep in mind that since there are new and different learning spaces to consider (physical and virtual) when delivering a minilesson, educators must be flexible with each component, the pacing, and the way learners are engaged throughout the process. According to the Heinemann article, How the Essentials of Reading and Writing Workshop Do-and Don’t Change with Virtual Teaching, “Traditionally, the architecture of minilessons remains largely the same from day to day—and contains a connection, teach, active engagement, and link. For virtual minilessons we keep the “connection” and “teach,” but often combine the “active engagement” and the “link” as a way to set kids up to practice the strategy demonstrated. So instead of kids trying the work during the minilesson—hard to do virtually, especially with recorded instruction—after the teacher demonstrates, we set the kids up to go off to work.” Honoring the gradual release of responsibility, the effective transfer of skills and strategies, and leading learners towards independence will always remain a constant in any learning environment.

Architecture of a minilesson anchor chart.

Conferring is a Cornerstone- 1:1 and small group conferencing is a key ingredient to having learners practice, improve, and elevate their literacy skills. This sacred time spent with students can be messy as the learner guides the direction the conference will take. In turn, the teacher should be able to notice and name a learner’s strengths and areas for growth and adjust the direction and goals of the conference accordingly. According to Jennifer Serravallo, in her book A Teacher’s Guide to Reading Conferences K-8, she beautifully conveys, “Conferring is where the magic happens. It’s the heartbeat of the literacy block…. Conferring blurs the lines between teacher and student” (p. 1). In a conference, the teacher and student are both learners, except, the student is doing most of the work while the teacher coaches in and offers thinking prompts to lift the level of the work. Students need to understand the goal(s) of the conference in order to make the necessary progress in their learning and during independent reading. In virtual spaces, these vital interactions take place in Zoom or Meet breakout rooms. This is a more personalized space to connect, interact, and personalize learning. Katie Martin confirms this in her blog titled, To Engage Students, Focus on Connection Over Content, “Scheduling time with each student to connect, learn more about their circumstances, their goals, and ideas, created a different dynamic that built empathy and allowed for more personalization and meaningful connection.” In her blog Using Feedback to Build a Sense of Connection, Purpose, and Ownership Dr. Martin states, “5-minute conferences can be a really powerful way to check in with students and provide timely meaningful feedback based on their needs.  Teachers who are remote might use breakout rooms to meet with a few different students or small groups each day to check-in. If you are in person you can call students up while others are working or giving each other feedback.”

Curate Relevant Resources

-Print and Digital Texts

In a workshop classroom, readers should have access to a tremendous volume of books in a mutlitude of genres and topics that spark their interest. As a matter of fact, Richard Allington suggests that schools have a minimum of 1,000 books per classroom! Over the last few years, learners have also been introduced to digital readers. Since we are attending to the needs of learners in both physical and virtual spaces, it is important to provide students with access to rich classroom libraries as well as websites and apps that house a plethora of digital texts. I am fortunate that my school district has provided our students with digital texts on Raz-Kids, Epic, Bookflix, and Sora (just to name a few). In the physical classroom, books are checked out when readers go book shopping, and then they are quarantined for 4 days until they can be checked out again! We must continue to keep in mind that maintaining a classroom library is an ongoing process to ensure that there are high-interest, high quality texts that represent various genres, topics, and series that students will embrace.

-Purposeful Anchor Charts 

Purposeful anchor charts that are created with students is an essential part of the workshop experience! If you walk into my classroom, you will see that the walls are adorned with meaningful charts that help learners access skills/strategies that are needed to navigate various texts they encounter. These tools are meant to maximize students’ independence, encourage choice and risk-taking, and celebrate the productive struggle along the way. In the book Smarter Charts by Marjorie Martinelli and Kristine Mraz, they explicitly state, “Charts help to make our teaching explicit and clear by providing step-by-step directions and key tips and strategies for how to do something” (p. 86). For students in the virtual space, I recreate mini versions of these charts and intentionally attach them to a digital notebook of strategies for learners to access when they need the support.

Physical Space Anchort Chart (left) and Virtual Space Anchor Chart (right)

Preserving Independent Reading-Independent reading is the heart of the workshop model. Within the gradual release of responsibility, it is critical to be able to guide learners towards independence in physical and virtual spaces. This is where they will be able to apply the skills and strategies that are taught during the demonstration portion of the minilesson. Independent reading is a routine and protected practice that transpires across grade levels. According to the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Position Statement on Independent Reading, “Effective independent reading practices include time for students to read, access to books that represent a wide range of characters and experiences, and support within a reading community that includes teachers and students. Student choice in text is essential because it motivates, engages, and reaches a wide variety of readers. The goal of independent reading as an instructional practice is to build habitual readers with conscious reading identities.” If you are an educator who embraces the workshop model philosophy, it is a professional obligation to model your own reading life and create the time and space for learners to independently read.

Ongoing Assessment & Feedback– Meaningful assessment can propel the teaching and learning process. It is a way to collect information about the learners’ strengths and areas of need.  In a workshop model framework, it is important to embed thoughtful assessments that drive daily instruction. Assessments help teachers provide thoughtful feedback, create small groups, create personalized goals for all learners, and structure minilessons accordingly. This includes, but is not limited to formal and informal running records, spelling inventories, checklists, rubrics, and anecdotal notes. When adminstering assessments in physical and virtual spaces, it is vital to plan accordingly. It is beneficial to be transparent with learners and families about the “why” behind each assessment. Learning shouldn’t be a secret! Personally, I always spend time discussing the expectations in rubrics and checklists with learners. We analyze the nuances in language and develop a shared understanding of the goals. In Katie Martin’s blog titled, Using Feedback to Build a Sense of Connection, Purpose, and Ownership, she expresses, “When students are clear about the learning goals and criteria for success, they can self assess their work and take ownership of the process. Checklists and rubrics can be really helpful, especially if they are co created and the students have a clear grasp of what is expected of them. Creating time and building the routine for this practice is critical to understand where they are and determine next steps.” Furthermore, it is valuable to provide learners with ongoing, cyclical feedback that clearly paints a picture of where they are in relation to the learning targets, what the next steps are, and what it will take to get there. Katie Martin goes on to say, “Meaningful feedback is not the same as a grade or an evaluation. Feedback is information for the learner about where they are in relationship to the goal or target to help them get there. If we can prioritize the learning goals and only assign meaningful work, we can make the time for students to go deep, get feedback, revise and do something meaningful.”

Learners highlighted the shifts in language on a 1-4 scale Reading Workshop Rubric for physical and virtual spaces.

Stay tuned for the next blog in this series: Reimagining the Magic of the Workshop Model Series 4: Honoring the Workshop Model Framework 

Moving with Time

My Perpetual Internal Clock

5:30 am… this is the time my morning routine begins. This is the time, my mind begins to race as I instantly start to think about all of the things I want to accomplish in my day. This is the time my internal clock is set to, even when I don’t have anywhere specific to be. This is a time when no one else in my house is awake yet. It’s my time. A time to ponder, to think, to analyze, to reflect, and to set new goals. I’ll admit, it’s REALLY hard for me to turn off the thoughts and ideas that speed like wildfire through my head. It kind of feels like a dream, the ones with different scenes that overlap with one another. The kind of dreams where there are problems that present themselves as barriers and you have that urgent feeling to search for the right solutions. The kind of dream where you encounter various people you have met in your life and you are happy they are there to be the thinking partner who will help you overcome the challenges. Do you ever think about how you can navigate your days with intention and purpose and who you may invite to come along for the journey? 

Choosing Time

Time… time is something that we all have and choose to use in different ways. One way isn’t better than the other, that’s what makes us who we are. For me, when I am in professional thinking mode, I tend to perseverate over how I will use my time so that I can make a difference for learners and the educational community. I ask myself, “What could I do differently today and make it better than yesterday? I believe that this type of thinking actually works well in our current climate. The way we are learning and the types of resources we have access to are constantly changing within spaces of time. It’s happening really fast. Day by day… hour by hour… minute by minute. Sometimes, it’s difficult to keep up with it all. It’s like running a race. You take off with plenty of open space in front of you and then suddenly there are hurdles that get in your way. It’s a barrier that doesn’t appear to be moving, and you must figure out a way to successfully move beyond it. Do you stop and run backward or do you keep moving forward? More than ever, we are living in times where we must roll up our sleeves and embrace the change. Actually, to me, there is no other choice. It is dangerous to say “This is the way we have always done it”. Our world and the learners that exist within it are constantly evolving and educators have an obligation to stay ahead of the curve. It is also important to understand that we do not have to do it alone. After all, aren’t we in a field of sharing and collaboration? We must constantly rally together to analyze, reflect, assess, and work deliberately towards improving instruction, the practices we employ, and solutions to instructional issues that get in the way. It is crucial to invite others to share their expertise and guide us towards providing optimal learning experiences for students. Katie Martin recently shared the image below on Instagram that expresses just what I am saying. We can choose to use our time to actively seek out opportunities that will help us thrive in the unpredictable times we are living in.

Katie Martin

We Can Dance in the Puddles

Time…it is time to think differently about the things we are used to seeing daily and create systems that support the process for creating and refining ideas. In a recent Future Ready podcast, Thomas Murray interviewed Superintendent, Dr. Tiffany Anderson. I was captivated by her ideas, convictions, and courageous leadership qualities. She expressed how her school district recognized that they must be versatile and adaptable as they shifted to remote learning. She mentioned that if you leverage technology well, you can continue learning in all different ways. She went on to say that since we have not been confined to our classroom walls, there are no borders that will get in the way of our growth…the possibilities are limitless. The challenging times we have been faced with have led us to take a deeper look into how students and educators learn. These times have allowed us to be more innovative than ever before and have prompted us to take more risks.  I have always believed in the power of being a connected and networked educator, and this notion only amplified the value of it. Dr. Anderson also indicated that students and educators are truly resilient to the new structures that have been put in place. This idea really resonated with me because we can now think intentionally about using our time differently than we have before. And, because there are so many unknowns, that there is no “right” way to approach this work. The idea of starting with what you know, learning the facts, and then moving forward, makes it all more manageable. Of course, the preparation for this type of learning certainly has to have a great deal of flexibility. My favorite part of this podcast is when Dr. Anderson says that when it rains, and right now it’s a thunderstorm, “You have two options. You can complain about the rain or you can dance in the puddles.”  I have certainly seen educators in my own school district and in districts across the country dancing in the puddles. This work is admirable. It can be hard. It can be emotional. It can be draining. But, it sure is rewarding! These virtual spaces have really opened up times to collaborate and connect with colleagues in new and exciting ways! I highly recommend viewing this incredible podcast as there are so many MORE gems of information and words of wisdom shared.

Time Moves Forward

Time…time is moving and the world continues to evolve in ways we could have never imagined. When my 5:30 a.m. internal clock wakes up, I will continue to think about how learning is messy. I will continue to perseverate on how I can make teaching and learning better. I will continue to think about the challenges that are getting in the way. I will continue to think about how learning is not a step by step, linear process. I will continue to think that it’s complex and often requires multiple solutions that have several correct answers. One thing I can say with certainty is that my mind will never stop moving with time. I am committed to rolling up my sleeves, embracing the change, navigating the days with intention and purpose, and inviting others to join me!

time