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.

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 your classroom, I can’t wait to learn from 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?

Lifelong Practices Live Within

My Educational Journey

I have been in education for 15 years and throughout my career, I have served in many roles at the Elementary level. This includes Teaching Assistant, Classroom Teacher, Reading Specialist, and most recently, Instructional Coach. Throughout the trajectory of my career, I have always worked to challenge myself in every position I have ever served in. Each position has taught me how to fine-tune what I know and do; each position has allowed me to see and focus on my strengths and the strengths of others in order to provide the best opportunities for students to reach their social, emotional, and academic potential; each position has allowed to me stay true to my core beliefs while learning new ways to approach teaching and learning. And because I have been fortunate to travel this path, I recognize the value every role brings to an organization. Over the course of time, I have asked myself, “How can I continue to honor my core belief system as I navigate the different roles I serve in?” At the heart of this journey, it became clear to me that developing relationships, connecting, being human, and leading with empathy and grace, opens doors to creating a community of learners who work together to ambitiously develop solutions to instructional challenges.

Not the Same Educator

Five years ago my school district decided to invest in job-embedded professional learning at the Elementary level. They reached to educators within the organization who had a strong background in literacy to elevate literacy practices and bring shared experiences to four buildings. When I took on the role of Literacy Coach, my school district had already committed to embracing the balanced literacy approach; this is an approach to reading and writing instruction I feel very strongly about to the core as learners can authentically engage in rich literacy experiences including the reading and writing workshop, interactive read alouds, shared reading, small group instruction, one-on-one conferencing, and have choice and voice as they get to self-select from diverse texts across a plethora of genres. This was an opportunity to work side-by-side with teachers as I got to collaboratively write curriculum and develop meaningful assessments with teachers, students, administrators, and literacy consultants. Over the course of a few years, we developed 73 Units of Study that were grounded in the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project philosophy. I got to work intimately with the other Literacy Coach, a brilliant colleague, and friend as we rallied teachers together to analyze, reflect, and revise a live curriculum to meet the needs of a diverse population. Additionally, we purposefully and intentionally took an audit of all elementary classroom libraries and ordered books and mentor texts to support learners and enhance the curriculum. Furthermore, we vertically aligned the curriculum, so there was a smooth progression of literacy development from K-5 that was aligned to the learning standards. In the last few years, I worked with my other Instructional Coach colleagues to ensure continuity of instruction in the Reading and Writing Workshop model, provided meaningful professional learning experiences during faculty and grade-level meetings, and participated in formal and informal conversations about student learning. All of this heart work has always been grounded in best practice. Best practices and systems are what guided this incredible experience. During this time, my coaching belief system was shaped by Jim Knight’s Seven Partnership Principles (introduced to me by Jessica Gruttola during an Instructional Coaching workshop). These principles influenced conversations, theory, and practice. These are the principles that supported my team as we embarked on the mission of creating positive change. If we modeled the change we wanted to see by consistently using the Partnership Principles as a guide while keeping learners at the heart of the decision-making process, we were off to great things!

Jim Knight

It was this work that led me to deeply understand what teaching and learning practices would best support learners in order to move them to higher levels, guide them towards independence, and create lifelong learners.

Coaching 1        Coaching 2Coaching 3  Coaching 4

Coaching work I facilitated in faculty, grade level, and one-on-one meetings.

Taking A Leap of Faith

This year I am taking a leap of faith as I enthusiastically join the Middle School team where I will serve as a Literacy Specialist. Although I will always keep my years of elementary experience close to my heart, I am incredibly excited to continue to collaborate, connect, network, reflect, and share all I have learned in every role I have ever had the privilege of serving in with colleagues and learners. I am also inviting the learning curve that will come with acclimating to a new culture and climate. I will learn for, about, and with new leadership, colleagues, and learners. In making the transition from Elementary to Middle School, I believe that there is great strength in knowing and understanding the building blocks of learning, where the students are coming from, and what skills they should have mastered. If we work together towards building a bridge that will reinforce what they know while making new connections to learning, there will be a strong vertical progression of literacy development.  As I make this transformation to the middle level, there is one thing I know for sure… I will continue to honor my own core belief system and the teaching and learning practices I am so insanely passionate about. As I continue on my educational journey, I will never forget the experiences I have been a part of and the people who have impacted my growth along the way. They are all a part of who I am, and that will never change!

Keeping Partnership Principles at the Core

I created the infographic below to demonstrate how Jim Knight’s Instructional Coaching Partnership Principles translate to working with learners using a balanced literacy approach. I believe that belief systems in education can be applied to any learning environment, if they are in fact, best practices!

Keeping Partnership Principles at the Core (2)

Keeping Partnership Principles at the Core