If we are not getting into classrooms on a regular basis, then we have to get honest about what’s keeping us out.
Go-to short hand excuses for leaders like me, include: “There are so many operational demands…The student behaviors are high right now. I have a lot of follow up…I have to get to these compliance tasks. I can’t end up on the ‘naughty list’.”
These pressures are real. They are true. But they are also excuses. That’s what they are.
The most important part of my job is the role of instructional leader. I believe the best hope for students, who are currently outside the ‘sphere of success,’ is skilled teaching that reaches them at their point of need. I know that creating space for teachers to reflect on their practice is critical. In fact, I believe coaching teachers is the most valuable work a principal can do.
So, then what keeps us back?
To be brutally honest, discomfort and fear hold me back. Both consciously and subconsciously, I discover ways to shorten the “coaching day.” Fear pushes me towards more managable, concrete tasks. I end up doing less of what is most important.
After all, when we engage in coaching, it can create mutual discomfort. Some teachers tense up right when we walk in the classroom. Any lack of trust that may exist in the professional relationship suddenly becomes palpable. At times we see practices in classrooms that are disappointing, even startling. We are pushed to have hard conversations. Other days we see dynamic teaching and learning. We “notice and name” the positives, but wonder if pointing out areas for improvement will discourage our best teachers. We don’t want to undermine already strong relationships.
Sometimes we sit in classrooms beating ourselves up. “Wow. I haven’t been in this classroom for some time. What is up with me?”
We wonder if our written feedback will be received the right way.
We hope there are natural moments for coaching conversations, until they slip away.
We wonder what might be triggering a colleague.
We know that the email is stacking up and the to-do tasks haven’t gone away.
We feel discomfort. We feel fear.
And so we retreat.
Courageous and driven instructional leaders all feel these tensions. They hear these doubts. They feel the discomfort and fear consistently.
Courageous and driven instructional leaders push through fear and discomfort. They sit in it and breathe. They schedule the time to be in classrooms and stick to it. They push away operational excuses and improve on their ability to delegate. Courageous leaders are sensitive to teacher preferences, yet insist on space for meaningful conversations. They work hard to refine their coaching practices. Yet they have compassion for themselves in the process.
Yes, we are scared. But we press in.
After all, our kids deserve leaders who push through their own fears.
I miss the days of sitting cross-legged on the classroom carpets with students. While it gave my dress slacks all the pull they can handle, it also brought me up close to teachers guiding students with passion and expertise. It put me next to engaged students who used whiteboards, math manipulatives, and straight-forward language to think through rigorous grade level concepts.
Now, we find ourselves in a different era of teaching and learning. In response to the global COVID 19 pandemic, the majority of schools in America persist using a distance learning educational delivery model. Daily, teachers and students log into lessons through Zoom applications. Students see classmates through screens, share thinking in chat boxes, and attend to reading strategies, all while snacking on their morning breakfast.
Teachers do their magic from home offices and living rooms, silencing pet dogs and cell phone vibrations. They erect double screens so that they can see the full compliment of students on their rosters. They teach from swiveling office chairs and record student ideas on chart paper that is pinned to the textured drywall of their homes.
As instructional leaders, we too, are compelled to transform our coaching practices to meet teachers where they are at. Here are some “hacks,” or better stated, some methods of providing meaningful feedback in this novel era of online teaching and learning. And while this arrangement is likely to shift to a more supportive version of in person learning, it will be important to carry forward what has proven to be effective.
Have a “Master Zoom” sheet at the ready.
A “master zoom sheet” lists all the teachers, their recurring meeting IDs, and the individual passwords to get in. Orchestrating the creation of this document has saved me, and para educators hours of time. Instead of hunting through emails from teachers, dating back months, we are able to enter classrooms at the click of a link, and the keyboard peck of a simple password. Some days, the ease of visiting classrooms feels even more efficient than walking the campus. The only downside to this method of accessing classrooms, is knowing that we need to get our daily “steps” in through real physical exercise.
Narrow focus for observation and feedback. Align it to a teacher-identified focus.
Coaching and feedback is more likely to be well received and growth producing when it is aligned to an area of practice that teachers self identify. Just as it is in physical classrooms, countless dynamics play out in real time during lessons. Without a consistent focus for the adult learning, feedback can come across as scattered, subjective, and unfair. Teachers can feel like they are playing whack-a-mole to respond to our wonderings and suggestions. On the other hand, if we are able to agree on a single area of teacher practice, that will directly benefit students, then everyone wins. Teachers welcome objective data collection and probing questions. Administrators can zero in on a difference making dynamic. And students benefit from increasingly effective actions, taken by educators who are guiding their learning.
Spend sufficient time in each zoom lesson.
Zoom makes it easy to “pop in” and “Pop out” of classrooms at the click of a mouse. The danger for instructional leaders is that we are now able to visit classrooms with efficiency, without adding value. Visiting a classroom does not equate to partnering in the work with teachers. While there is not a universal threshhold for “long enough” or “too long,” we have to spend enough time to 1) get a sense of the lesson being taught 2) collect enough data to be able to ground our coaching conversations and 3) communicate value for the preparation and delivery of the lesson. We want to avoid the possible perception of teachers that “You were only there for a few minutes. You didn’t see X, Y or Z.”
Have grade level standards open on a browser tab.
Whether we are focused on a teachers moves to engage students or master guided reading, the ultimate measure of success lives in the question: To what degree were students successful approximating or mastering grade level concepts? Whether teachers communicate the learning goal with clarity or not, it is our responsibility to ensure students are receiving grade level preparation. This is an equity issue. Identifying and noting the grade level standard or critical concept being taught is always my first goal in an observation. I listen for it. I reference the resources I have to locate it. And I capture it on any feedback form I use. When I am unable to make the connection, it becomes a point of clarification during coaching conversations. It has a way of grounding our work, reinforcing alignment of learning concepts to learning activities. And it communicates that learning is the main business of our school community.
Use googleforms to provide immediate feedback, identify trends across the sight, and capture frequency of observations by teacher.
I’ve created, adapted, and experiemented with a number of feedback templates over the years. I’ve used index cards, copy paper and typed word documents. Over the last couple years however, I’ve shifted to using googleforms to provide written feedback. I’ve found them useful because 1) They can be completed with on a phone, tablet, or computer. 2) I’m able to send the feedback to teachers electronically before leaving the classroom 3) I can capture and analyze data from visitations over the course of a semester or year (including frequency of visit, consistency of focus, and previous wonderings per teacher). Now that we are in a distance format, I am able to dictate the observations and wonderings into my phone, which transposes it to the google form. Pro tip: Make sure that you are on “mute” so that the entire class does not hear you!
Use “voice memo” feature on the phone to record and email personalized feedback with your own voice.
Since timely feedback is important and written feedback can be impersonal, I started using the voice memo feature of my phone to send brief messages to teachers following observations. Immediatly following a lesson, I simply tap the phone application, hit the record button and begin speaking. I affirm the amazingness that I just witnessed, highlight 1-2 aspects I noticed, and leave them with a wondering. I keep them under two minutes, and I send them instantaneously via email. So far, I’ve noticed that these messages are received well by teachers. They respond a increased frequencies, usually by email. And they get to hear a real human voice, with tone and inflection. These do not replace coaching conversations that include the synergy of back and forth dialogue. But they allow me to affirm and challenge a wider range of teachers on a given day of observations and feedback. Observations worthy of greater space and time are usually scheduled for the following day.
Schedule zoom meetings for follow up coaching conversations with a couple of teachers you visited during a day.
It’s important for me to have real coaching conversations with a handful of teachers on a given school week. Instead of sending a voice memo, I schedule a zoom meeting with them for the following school day. The further we get from the actual lesson, the harder it is to recall specific student responses and teaching moves. So getting that meeting in the scheduled quickly, is important. Then, I send the google feedback form so that they are able to reflect on the lesson with my initial questions. I find that conversations are much more productive when teachers have been able to ponder the questions I ask them.
Take screenshots to capture engaged learners and brilliant teaching moves.
To capture moments in time during distance learning, take a few screenshots. Each computer may be different. On a Mac, the shortcut command is “Shift +command+4” pressed simultaneously. Screenshots can be powerful for anchoring conversations in a particular moment of the conversation. They can also be a tool for discussions around students engagement and active participation. If you are looking for ways to capture brilliance, the screenshot function may become your newest tool.
Remind yourself that you will be back on the carpet with students soon enough.
This season of distance learning will pass. With COVID-19 vaccinations being offered to all Americans, we will once again feel safe to gather. You will, once again, get your front row seat to powerful teaching and learning. That carpet, up in the front of the classroom, has a square with your name on it!