Sunday, June 16, 2019

Focusing Your Vision with Style

Image by John Hain from Pixabay 
This year, I was introduced to an amazing book called Style Statement: Live By Your Own Design by Danielle LaPorte and Carrie McCarthy.  I learned about the book from a podcast I listen to and decided to buy it because I was looking for some ways to simplify areas of my life. The idea behind the book intrigued me. Basically, the authors give you a series of thought exercises to work through to reflect on different areas of your life. After doing the exercises, you look for patterns and whittle your reflections down to 2 words that sum up your style statement. The first word represents 80% of your style (think big furniture or basic wardrobe) and the other word represents 20% (think artwork or accessories). Now the book goes into all aspects of life including learning, home, fashion, relationships and more.  In the end, your 2 words should reflect you and how you approach all areas of your life.  It’s kind of like the #oneword idea for New Year’s resolutions.  The key to the book is that you want your style statement to represent who you are authentically-not what you want others to think you are.  Once you figure out your two words, you can use them to guide choices that are more aligned with your true values.

Anyway, I spent about a month going through the exercises and narrowing my style down to 2 words: timeless playful.  Those were not the words I would have predicted at the beginning of that journey. I wanted them to be statements like sophisticated bold or classic edgy, but that’s not what came to the surface through the exercises. Words like order, calm, comfort, peace, and open bubbled up in my positive reflections; whereas words such as chaos, bother, closed, and trapped were repeated in my more negative reflections. After realizing my two words, I started taking stock to see if they matched my life.  My clothes are mostly classic designs that don’t go out of style, but I like putting them in unique color combinations or playing with patterns.  My house is filled with furniture that will last and can withstand trends, but we have funky wallpaper and big, bold artwork on our walls.  My marriage is consistent, strong, and relaxing, but we love the adventure of travel and to laugh...a lot. So, timeless playful actually summed up most of my lifeSTYLE. Now...and thanks to Marie Kondo...those things that don’t fit are thanked and tossed. These words have started to drive most of my purchasing decisions, too. It’s made life much more simple and focused.

So, this summer, I’ve decided to play with this concept and how it might apply in education--teaching, coaching, leadership.  If you want to try, I’ve created my own modified version of Style Statement exercises you can do.

To get started, here are some questions to consider. I encourage you to write your reflections on paper so that you can see patterns that may emerge:

What works for you:

  • If you did not have to worry about test scores, what would you do in your classroom, school, or position?
  • You are at your professional best when you….
  • How would your best students, co-workers, and/or employees describe you?
  • Who are some of your professional mentors? What about them would you like to emulate?
  • What professional books, podcasts, Twitter chats, trainings, etc. have had the most impact on your work? In what ways?
  • The best part of being an educator is…
  • The best part of your job is…

What does not work well:

  • What does a bad day look like for you?
  • What aspects of your job are most irritating? Why?
  • How would you describe someone who is difficult to work with?
  • What was your worst experience as a student?
  • What was your worst experience as an employee? What made it a negative experience?
  • How would your most difficult students, co-workers, and/or employees describe you?
  • What are the 3 biggest things you would change about education? 

After you have written your thoughts, go through and circle words, concepts, or feelings that tend to repeat or that seem interesting to you. Choose 5 of these words that resonate most strongly with you and write them down (List A). Take a thesaurus and look for synonyms of the words and make a new list that includes all of the synonyms.  Choose 5 of the synonyms that resonate most strongly (List B).  Now using List A and List B, cross off any words that seem too dramatic or that just don’t feel quite right.  From the remaining words, play with some combinations that might represent your education style statement.

So, what did you create? What is your coaching style statement? Your teaching style statement? Your school culture style statement? Was what bubbled to the surface what you wanted it to be. What does the statement reflect?  Does it reflect what you truly believe? If not, what can you do to change it?

I hope this gives you some food for thought as you rejuvenate this summer and look toward the coming year.  Use this to help guide how you want to approach your work and the people that you encounter.

I’d love to hear some of your statements!

Monday, June 3, 2019

Making the Shift from Teacher to Coach

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay 
 Every year, I see great teachers moving from the classroom into leadership roles as administrators or coaches. This is always exciting to see, and I’m rooting for their success.  So, I thought I would share the top 5 things I wish I had known when I shifted from classroom teacher to coaching and leadership positions.

1. The skills are different!  There seems to be an assumption that if you are a good teacher, you will make a good coach; however, the skills needed to guide and influence adults are considerably different from the ones needed to engage students. Some overlap, for sure, but still, there are differences. Some skills of coaching (like presenting a staff development session) may come easily, and you can draw from your teaching toolbox. However, other skills, such as knowing how to effectively (and positively) work with a someone who is resistant to an idea or knowing how to effectively handle a challenging team dynamic can be extremely difficult if you haven’t had any type of leadership training or communication training...which many coaches have not.

2. Get great at “figuring it out”   Coaching is a bridge role.  You are constantly living in the “in between” of teaching and leading.  Many times, a coach’s role is not clearly defined and she has to basically determine what her daily/weekly schedule will entail without much guidance. If you are someone who needs to know if you are doing it “right”, this is a tough transition to make.  Sometimes, you’ve just got to write your own script instead of waiting for someone to tell you what to do. After all, you are a coach. Part of your job is to see the need and find ways to fill it.  An administrator or teacher may not always know what they need you to do….they need you to figure that out.

3. Take on learning like it’s your job...because it is. Training for coaches is limited at best. You will have to seek out your own tribe. Read everything you can get your hands on in the areas where you struggle.  If you are paralyzed by the thought having a difficult or uncomfortable conversation with someone, read Crucial Conversations and get some tools. If it is building trust with people, read Speed of Trust or any of the other countless books that are on the market. It is likely that your reading will shift from content to leadership, communication, and self-help type books.  That’s okay. In fact, it’s necessary.

4. Fill your own bucket.   This has probably been one of the most life-changing lessons I learned. There will always be someone who hates what you are doing. It’s hard to know that someone doesn’t think you are doing a good job. On the other hand, there will usually also be times when someone LOVES what you are doing. If you depend on these hills and valleys of praise and criticism to gauge your worth, though,  YOU ARE DOOMED.  The best advice I ever got was to leave both the praise and the criticism at the door.  Look at it, admire it, cry about it, whatever...then leave it.  Don’t come back to it. Don’t stew over it ...or bask in the glory of it.  Don’t keep it in a cage to pet later.  Don’t feed it. Don’t get hypnotized by it. Acknowledge it, learn from it, and move on.  I’ll be honest, the hardest part of this to learn to do was to let the praise part go. We all love to hear that we are doing something well. It took a long time for me to learn that other people’s words are sweet, but my own words to myself are nourishing. If I can keep myself nourished, then I’m not hungry. That makes it awfully hard to swallow the sweet OR sour words of others.

5. Tame your thoughts if you want to have real impact.  It is so easy to fall into a trap of “they just don’t want to…” or “that’s just a resistant teacher…” when you run up against a difficult situation.  Too easy in fact. Those thoughts are cop-outs.  They are easy.  They let me, the coach, off the hook. If I really want to have an impact, I have to tame those thoughts. One way that I have found is that when I encounter a teacher (or administrator) who seems resistant to what I am saying or promoting, I can ask myself “What does this show me they don’t understand?”  Just by asking myself this one question, it immediately takes the focus off of their character and puts it into something I can pinpoint and take action on. Then, it is up to me to put my teaching skills in action to help them understand it.

 In the end, all shifts take some time, but with the right tools and realistic expectations, the transition can be much smoother. Hopefully, these tips will give those of you who are changing roles some ideas for building skills. 

I’d love to know other tips or advice you would add to this list!

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Growing Forward: Making the Most of End-of-year Coaching Conversations

As the school year starts to wind down, I am at that point where I am doing my last coaching visits on campuses.  This is always an interesting time because there are generally changes afoot at almost every school.  Spring is the time when contracts go out, teachers start applying for jobs or get notified of assignment/grade changes, administrators start preparing for renovations, moves, summer school, and the list goes on. 

Image by cor gaasbeek from Pixabay 
In light of all the changes that generally occur, it can be a struggle to make those last meetings meaningful.  Going into classes to introduce something new is not really helpful at this point, so instead, I try to find time to meet with each teacher or team to debrief the year and help them plan for how they might grow as they look into the summer.

I call this a Growing Forward conference because it basically consists of asking 2 key questions that lead to an action or recommendation that will help the teacher move forward in an area he wants to grow.  This type of conference could happen at the end of any coaching cycle, but I find it particularly helpful at the end of the year. Here’s what you need to know to have a successful end-of-year conversation:

Question 1: In what areas do you feel you have grown?

This is one of my favorite questions to ask because the answers can be incredibly varied and surprising.  I like to leave it very open because I don’t want a teacher to limit her answer to only the areas that I have coached them.  In some cases, a teacher may have difficulty finding an area, so you want to make sure to have some follow-up questions handy.  (See suggestions below.) You will also want to be ready to tell them areas that you have seen growth, but let the conversation revolve around their reflections.

If the teacher has a response, you might say...

  • What do you feel has contributed most to your growth in this area?
  • What resources or tools have you found to be particularly helpful to you in this area?
  • What made you realize that this was an area that you could strengthen?
  • Where did you get ideas or support from in this area? (This may be an author, a Twitter PLN, another teacher, etc.)

If the teacher does not have a response or says “I don’t know”, you might say...

  • What is something new you tried this year? 
  • What is something you were more consistent with this year?
  • What is something that you changed over the course of the year? Why?
  • In what areas do you feel your students have grown this year? What did you do to support that growth?
  • What is something that went better or worked more smoothly for you this year than in the past? What was different?

Question 2: In what areas would you like to continue to grow?

I have found this question is generally followed by a long pause….which also tells me it’s a pretty good question.  Many teachers may not have taken time to think about an area that they WANT to grow.  How a teacher answers this question will give you some insight into how (or if) they think about and plan for their own personal growth.  I ask this question to teachers even if they are retiring, moving to a new position, or leaving the profession for some other reason. The follow-up questions should lead teachers in thinking about actions they could take. The answers that teachers give will inform your resource recommendation, so listen carefully. 

If the teacher has a response, you might say...

  • What will growing in this area help you to accomplish or allow you to do?
  • What trainings, books, or other resources have you found that might help you with learning more in this area?

If the teacher does not have a response or says “I don’t know”, you might say...

  • What is something you would like to try in the next year? (follow up with questions above)
  • What is something you have always wanted to know more about?
  • How do you want to feel at this time next year? What is one thing that would have to happen for you to feel that way? What is one thing you will have to learn or do to make that thing happen?
  • What is one thing you want to accomplish by this time next year? What is one thing you will have to learn or do to make that thing happen?


To wrap up the conference, I usually try to offer at least one resource or recommendation for the teacher related to the area in which he wants to grow.  If it is an area that I don’t know a lot about, then I try to help them think of ways to get information.  As a coach, this is why it is so important that you are constantly learning and growing yourself.  You want to be able to recommend books, websites, conferences, articles, and ideas you’ve seen, tried, or just heard about.

If you find that you don't really have a lot of resources to offer, you might take some time to ask yourself these same questions and perhaps discover areas that you may want to stretch your learning.  Remember, you don’t have to be an expert in every area, but you should definitely be an expert in growing and learning.

Happy Growing!

Sunday, April 14, 2019

A Dare for All Coaches

Truth or Dare? Remember that game?  As a kid, I always chose truth. I hated to be embarrassed, so dare was just simply off the table for me.  As an adult, I’ve come to see the value in the dare.

One of my favorite books of all time is Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly.  If you haven’t read it---stop now and just buy it.  You will thank me later. The title of the book is derived from Teddy Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” quote:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

I read this book years ago, and the last line sort of put a fear in me.  I didn’t want to be a cold and timid soul...but I knew I was.  I have -as I think we all do- a little voice in me that wants everything to be perfect. It wants every lesson to go well, to never be embarrassed, to always know what the outcome is going to be.   That voice is dangerous-in life and in coaching. That voice keeps me safe, but it keeps me from coming up with new ideas and trying new things. That voice is the voice that wants me to train teachers on what to do but never actually step into a classroom to see how it might work.  Because what if it doesn’t?  What if I mess up?  What if I can’t get the kids to do the work?  What if? What if? What if?  That scared voice likes for me to think that failing would be the most awful thing ever.  So, I decided this year to shut that voice up. 

How did I do that?  I had to purposefully dare myself to do some demo lessons that very well might fail.  There were some things I was reading about that I knew could make big impacts in classrooms, but I needed to do them to see how they worked. In my own classroom, that would not be a big deal. In fact, I tried things all the time. But in my role as a consultant/coach---it’s SCARY. I’m supposed to be the “expert”. I’m supposed to have tried everything, done it, know how it works, and be able to replicate it--perfectly. (Well, at least that’s what the little voice tells me.) 

Let’s just say that I have had plenty of demo bombs this year. But I’ve learned some lessons that I might not have otherwise.  Here was what I learned by failing in front of teachers:

1. Either get in the ring or get out. If I am going to ask teachers to do something---like try a new practice or video themselves teaching--I MUST be willing to do the same.  There is no wiggle room here.  If I’m not willing to do it - forget it. If I AM willing, though--different game.

2. “Demo Lessons” come in different forms. When a lesson doesn’t go right, take advantage of the opportunity to demonstrate your own leaning.  Ask for the teacher’s - and students’- input and get some suggestions for how to improve it.  Sometimes the “demonstration” part of a lesson is not in the lesson itself but in the aftermath of showing how you think through what went wrong and seek to make revisions-not blaming the students, not making excuses, not thinking that this one failed lesson must mean you are a terrible teacher/coach--just growing in front of someone.

3. It is NORMAL for things to go wrong. It’s never easy when something doesn’t go right--especially in those classes where you really NEED it to go right, but that’s life. It doesn’t mean you are bad at what you do. It means what you make it mean, so make it mean that you’re human and have off days sometimes.

4. It’s not always about me...what?! Whether a teacher truly gets something out of the demo lesson is not totally dependent on your execution of it. It has a lot to do with whether she feels respected and safe in the whole coaching context and, quite frankly, whether the teacher wants to get something out of it or not.  I have had teachers watch me do terrible lessons and still be able to walk away with something.  On the same hand, I’ve knocked some lessons out of the park yet had very little impact on the teacher.

5. Showing up is the best demo.  I have said many times before that I sometimes jokingly call coaching the act of “being the mosquito” because there are more times than not that it can feel like you are that thing that keeps coming around even though you may not be wanted all the time.  BUT you just keep showing up. When they hate you, you show up.  When they love you, you show up. When they are sick of you, you show up. When they invite you to their rooms, you show up. When they hurt your feelings (or when you hurt theirs), you show up. When you’re not sure if your lesson is going to be perfect, you SHOW UP so that you can show that perfection is not the goal. Learning is.

So, since spring is a time of growth...I dare you to do something that will make you grow.  I dare you to try something that you would like your teachers to try. And...double dog dare you to do it in front of them!

Wednesday, January 30, 2019


As the new year begins, it is a time to put old habits to rest and start new ones-to revisit the WHY behind what we do and see if there are any revisions needed.  I have had some major professional “a-ha” moments over the past 2 months, but my biggest one probably came in an 8th-grade class earlier this month.  We were working on poetry…

 Photo by Trust "Tru" Katsande on UnsplashPoetry--that art form that all of us connect to in music or greeting cards or love letters-but somehow find it so hard to get our students to analyze.  Here’s the thing-poetry is meant to first and foremost be read with the heart. What makes poetry great is that it can be interpreted so many different ways.  A songwriter may write a song about their child, but it relates to one listener as a love song to their boyfriend and another as a song about faith.  For example, Lady Antebellum’s song Run to You has always been a song about faith for me. That may not be at all what they were thinking about when they wrote it, but that’s how the words connect to me. So, how can we teach students to analyze something that is so subjective and open to interpretation? We don’t…we teach them to question it, feel it, and find a connection to it. Through that, they will come to a deeper understanding.

Typically, a poet is writing poetry to express something. Half the time, the conclusions we draw from our analysis may be a surprise to the poet, too!  (see Sara Holbrook’s article about not being able to answer STAAR questions about her own poem: That’s not to say we shouldn’t dig into poetry...we just have to keep the digging grounded in the fact that the poet likely didn’t expect us to dissect it.

For the past decade, the primary tool that I have seen being used to teach poetry analysis is TPCASTT--an mnemonic device designed to help students remember things to look for or do when analyzing poetry-title, paraphrase, connotation, attitude/tone, shifts, title (revisited), theme.  I understand the rationale, but I started wondering if there was another way to approach poetry analysis since I consistently hear how students struggle with this even though they have been taught TPCASTT.

So-back to the 8th-grade class.

I was modeling a lesson using the 3 Big Questions which Kylene Beers & Robert Probst introduce and discuss in their books Reading Nonfiction (2016) and Disrupting Thinking (2017). These 3 questions help readers take a questioning stance to any type of text. So, I wanted to see how it would work with poetry.

The 3 Big Questions are below along with what I add when introducing them to students in parentheses:

  1. What surprises me? (or causes a reaction...When you read, what makes you say “Cool!”, “Gross!”,  “Oh no!”, “Wow!”, “Awww…”, etc.? When you hear yourself thinking these things-take note of it.--mark these things with a ! or heart.)
  2. What did the author think I already knew? (When you read, what makes you say “Huh?” or “Wait...what?”...mark these things with a ?)
  3. What changed, challenged, or confirmed my thinking? (When you read, what makes you say “I knew it!” or “Hmmmm…” or “At first I thought___, but now I’m thinking…”...mark these things with a *)

For this lesson, we used the poem Autobiography in Five Short Chapters by Portia Nelson. First, \I read the poem and had the students briefly discuss or write one sentence describing their first impression.  Then, I introduced the 3 Big Questions, and the students read the poem while marking their thinking as it related to the Big 3. Next,  we talked about what they marked and what it made them wonder. This part was the key.  Here were some of their questions:

  • Why does she keep falling in the hole?
  • Why does she take so long to go down another street?
  • Why doesn’t she see the hole?
  • Why isn’t it his/her fault?
  • Why is he hopeless?

After we had a list of questions sparked by their thinking, we divided into groups to investigate them further.  Some of the conversations the kids were having were incredible!  They were figuring out symbolism and hypothesizing about what the hole could be...while constantly referring back to the text.  There were lots of "maybe..." and "he probably..." and "what if..." statements being used.

After the group discussions, we came back together to compare conclusions. I was truly surprised at the depth of their thinking. To end the lesson, I asked them to write a reflection. I gave them the following frame to use if they needed.  I wanted them to talk about their interpretation and how they could apply the poem to their own lives:

After reading the poem, I think ___________.  Something that stuck with me was _____ because ______.  I can remember this when I ________. 

Here was one student’s response (in true middle school fashion…)

After reading this poem, I think it’s not talking about an actual hole in the sidewalk. It’s more about love in my eyes. Something that really stuck with me is falling into the hole repeating. I can remember everytime I was heartbroken when I thought I fell in “love”. 

And another:

After reading the poem, I think the hole is not a real hole, and it is just a mistake. The author uses the hole as something to symbolize his mistakes. Something that really stuck with me was when he decided to finally walk down another street. I think he pretended not to see the hole because he didn’t want to fall in again, but in reality your mistakes won’t go away unless you fix them. 

And another:

After I read this poem something that stuck with me was that you can do over the same mistake but at the end find a solution for your mistakes. I can apply this to my life by knowing there is another path. 

And another

After reading the poem, I can’t get the thought out of my head that it really isn’t a real hole its mistakes or his love life. I can remember this poem when I have mistakes to really think about what I did and probably to stop repeating that same mistake.

Now, to me, for the first reading of a poem, that’s pretty insightful stuff.  I could go back with them on another day and look more closely at some of the elements of TPCASTT, but having them do something like this first might make that more meaningful.  They can then look at the title, shifts, and other elements in relation to the effect it had on them as readers...and as feeling human beings!

After trying this in other grades and with other poems, I keep seeing similar results--kids are talking and thinking more deeply than I expected about a genre that they typically struggle to interpret. And...they actually seemed to be enjoying it! So, for me, I’m going to give TPCASTT some time off and see how deep the students’ questions can take us instead.

Photo by Trust "Tru" Katsande on Unsplash