As educators, we all want every student to have access to a great teacher. Where education leaders vary is how to go about making that happen. I discuss the flaws in traditional PD experiences here, so I won’t go down that path again. I would like to focus more on the 1:1 interactions between teachers and instructional leaders. How can we leverage those conversations into something that results into improvement?
I recently read an article, PD is Sinking... where the author, Gustafson, maintains
Teachers being told what to learn and why it matters should no longer be the predominant means of professional learning.
Many instructional leaders struggle to initiate change because they rely on the method that Gustafson mentions. “Here is what you need to know and why you need to do it.” Sometimes we believe that if we find the right answer – then everyone will just jump on board. So, we are constantly seeking the next best thing. I contend that lack of implementation has less to do with the quality of the strategy/program and more do to with the plan to implement learning.
This is probably an oversimplification, but when your goal is to help someone improve or implement some initiative, you can act in two very different ways: you can offer advice or you can coach them to be better. Advice is quick and easy on your part, while coaching requires much more time and effort. Both definitely can be useful, but I would argue that coaching will result in a larger impact.
Advice can be great. Think about all the great advice you’ve gotten in your lifetime. We seek advice when we don’t have solutions on out own. So, advice can be really effective when it is sought out. Those who sought it did so because they already knew they had a problem they needed help with, and are, therefore, already motivated to do what it takes to address the problem; they just need to be pointed in the right direction. The problem with relying on simply giving advice as an “implementation plan” is that many educators are receiving advice they aren’t seeking – therefore not motivated to act on it. Below I describe a few specific reasons why just simply offering advice will fail to result in large scale improvement.
The Problems with Advice:
- Advice is often unsolicited
If you have kids, you have probably received a plethora of unsolicited advice. Around 10 years ago – I was overwhelmed with all of the advice thrown my way from parents, in-laws, friends and even random people at restaurants. When receiving unsolicited advice, the quality of the advice does not matter one bit. Most people, myself included, immediately write it off. It could be the best advice in the world – If I didn’t ask for it, I ignored it. Not only did I not follow that advice, but I got a little peeved at the person who offered it. When one offers unsolicited advice, it is always accompanied with an underlying assumption that the person on the receiving is not doing something well enough. While that may be true – this fact is often not overlooked by those who receive unsolicited advice.
When PD is centered around someone else’s perspective of what teaching should be – it won’t be effective. Teacher’s deserve ownership in what and how they learn. Whether we mean to or not, when we ask teachers to change their practice without including them in the conversation, we are implying that their current efforts aren’t good enough. That is a hard pill to swallow for anyone, and the result will likely be resistance to whatever advice is offered – no matter the quality of the advice.
2. Advice places burden of execution solely on teacher
When teachers do attempt to implement advice, they often do so without clarity and a thorough understanding of what it is they are implementing. Advice tends to be overly general lacking details on how to actually implement a strategy. Consider the following common advice teachers often receive:
“You should work harder to build relationships with your kids”
“Maybe using cooperative learning will help”
“Try lecturing a little less”
“You really need to work on procedures”
This type of advice is ineffective for several reasons. 1: This advice is annoyingly vague. 2: Even if the teacher wanted to implement the above advice, he/she is now left to guess at how these “strategies” should be implemented. If these are teachers who are struggling in any of these areas, why on earth would we allow them to try to improve on their own??? That would be like telling Shaq who was notorious for being a horrible free throw shooter- “Ya know, you really should work on shooting free throws,” and believing that you have offered them something of use. Even if your advice had a little substance, without setting goals, modeling technique, observing and offering feedback it won’t get results. I would imagine many coaches/players gave Shaq a few tips or offered advice about how he could shoot better, but it wasn’t until Shaq worked with shooting-coach legend, Ed Palubinskas, that his free throw percentages soared from 38% average to up to 70%. He talks a little about that process here.
3. Advice lacks follow through
Advice is typically take it or leave it. More often than not people tend to leave it (see #1 for reasons). I suspect people rely on vice more often than coaching because it is a ton easier to give advice than it is to coach someone. Anyone with experience and know how can notice things that probably should happen in a classroom and advise a teacher, but it is much more difficult to share expertise in a way that results in the teacher making actual improvements. I suspect that is why offering advice is more common than coaching. Everyone is strapped for time; it is easier to offer advice and walk away – then it is to put together a plan for improvement. I have heard it said – “What gets monitored; gets done.” Giving “drive-by” advice removes any accountability from the process – and sometimes some peer accountability may be what teachers need to push them to grow.
Reflecting and improving as a teacher is a difficult and time consuming endeavor. It requires a certain amount of vulnerability that can be emotionally taxing. It’s not easy for anyone to admit that their practice can be improved. It’s kind of like joining a diet/exercise program to be more healthy; you know it’s something you should do but it’s really hard to do things differently. That’s why so many of these programs have components that build in accountability. Some have point systems – where people can hold themselves accountable for the food they eat. Others involve actually meeting with personal trainers, that hold them accountable and push them to do things, they wouldn’t have done on their own. On social media, people post all the time about how many miles they have ran, or calories they’ve eaten. These people are looking for that attention to help them reinforce behaviors that will help them hit their goal. I don’t think it is a stretch to think that teachers need that sort of follow through to help them meet their professional goals.
How is coaching different from advice?
Instructional coaching addresses each area where advice falls short.
- Coaching only works well when it is a choice.
Most teachers would agree that it is difficult to “force” learning onto their kids. Adults aren’t much different. Instructional coaches intentionally plan enrolling activities to inform teachers and administrators the benefits of coaching. Some teachers may not be ready to work with a coach. That is fine! Adults learn in different ways; for some reading professional literature and online blogs may do the trick. Administrators should expect that all teachers are committed to continuous improvement – anything less than that would be unprofessional. There is nothing wrong with referring a teacher to coach as one of several options – but assigning them to work with a coach can be detrimental to the work coaches do and more importantly it probably won’t work and is therefore a waste of teacher’s and coaches time.
Other options could include:
-Independent or small group book study
– Attend a training
– Observe other teachers at site
-Observe teachers in other schools
– Social media: Twitter chats, blogs, other education groups (ie English Companion Ning)
– Work directly with a mentor teacher or administrator to create a plan
– Work with instructional coach in a deep coaching cycle
2. Coaching provides teachers with the support they need to improve.
Where advice fails at providing any actual support to teachers, coaching walks teachers through a process designed to support them to identify goals, learn high impact strategies, and monitor their progress towards those goals. Coaches learn and practice how to model and communicate strategies in a way that honors the voice and expertise of the teachers. Coaches don’t aim to “fix” teachers that are broken or failing; they simply use data to show the current reality and help teachers learn strategies to improve that reality.
3. Coaching helps ensure follow through
When working with an instructional coach, there is always some tacit accountability built into that relationship. This accountability goes both directions. Coaches are accountable to teachers to collect data and suggest and explain effective strategies. Teachers who decide to enroll select goals and are accountable to do something in order to meet those goals. The ultimate decision of what strategies they will do to meet those goals lies in them. Once a goal is set, that goal also becomes the coaches goal. I think this is why coaching works so well, because both parties are mutually accountable to each other. The work that follows is not about blaming one party for results, but focused on solutions and improvements.