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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

9 Strategies Teachers and Leaders Should Add in 2016

By Peter DeWitt — December 30, 2015 5 min read
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In the Preface of his new book Better Conversations: Coaching Ourselves and Each Other to Be More Credible, Caring, and Connected, Jim Knight writes,

I didn't write this book because this is the kind of person I am. I wrote the book to describe the person I want to be. I also wrote it because I believe most people who read this will feel the same. We all want to be better, and we fall short. I wanted to write something that honestly acknowledged our own difficulties with communication but that also offered a pathway forward.

I am fortunate enough to work with Knight as an instructional coaching trainer, and I often feel that we should explore those areas that we want to improve in, which is one of the main reasons I write this blog. I don’t always write this blog based on things I have done, but on things that I want to do.

Unfortunately, some readers (some I know and others who are anonymous) feel that posts such as those found on Finding Common Ground (FCG) are meant to only poke the hornet’s nest, which is very far from the truth. FCG is supposed to help inspire us to engage in conversations where we learn from one another. It’s about acknowledging, in the spirit of Jim Knight’s preface, what we haven’t done so well, which is why I try to find guest bloggers who think differently than I do.

Improvement, based on personal and professional goals, should be at the heart of what we do in our classrooms and schools. In our personal and professional lives there is no better time to talk about improvement than now because we are days away from the new year. This is a week where we reflect on the past year and look forward to the next.

Unfortunately, many of us talk about New Year’s resolutions, but we never quite make the change we wish for on the night the ball drops. According to this article in Forbes, only 8 percent of people actually achieve their New Year’s resolution. Dan Diamond wrote,

Self-improvement, or at least the desire for it, is a shared American hobby. It's why so many of us—some estimates say more than 40% of Americans—make New Year's resolutions. (For comparison, about one-third of Americans watch the Super Bowl.) But for all the good intentions, only a tiny fraction of us keep our resolutions; University of Scranton research suggests that just 8% of people achieve their New Year's goals.

Diamond goes on to write,

Many people use the New Year as an opportunity to make large bucket lists or attempt extreme makeovers, whether personal or professional. That's a nice aspiration, experts say--but the average person has so many competing priorities that this type of approach is doomed to failure. Essentially, shooting for the moon can be so psychologically daunting, you end up failing to launch in the first place.

So ... in the spirit of Jim Knight’s words and Dan Diamond’s advice, I created a random list of a few resolutions we could start with in our classrooms or school buildings. It is not meant to be the “end all to be all” list of resolutions, nor is it meant to poke fun at teachers and leaders. Read the list, reflect on where you are, and pick one to try when school is back in session.

They are:

Increase student dialogue in the classroom - Trade in one worksheet for a conversation around learning. Too often we feel that learning is not taking place if we are not controlling the conversation. Throw out a question based on the subject, and walk around as students discuss it. Let students talk with a partner and then help guide the learning based on the conversations you hear. It allows you to go deep with some students and repeat information to others. Just remember that this will take modeling and consistency, especially if students aren’t used to doing it.

Give more feedback than praise - I cannot tell you how many times I have said “Great job!” in my lifetime. Our default reaction is to provide praise. Step back and try to offer some feedback instead. This is easy when students make a lot of errors, but it’s harder to do with our students who excel. Offer feedback that will help them move their dial.

Cooperative learning - It sounds easy but there is actual research that shows we don’t encourage students to engage in cooperative learning as much as we actually put them in cooperative seating where they do individual work. Have students work together on a co-constructed idea or problem. Give each student a role in the learning process.

Increase wait time - In the classroom we ask students questions and give them about three seconds to answer. If they don’t answer, we go on to another student. I wrote about it here. Give them some time to answer the question. If they cannot answer the question, Jim Knight suggests that we Repeat, Rephrase, or Reduce (watch a Teaching Channel video of Jim coaching a teacher on that topic here).

Do more “turn & talks - Coming up with answers can be difficult for students ... and adults. Allow them to partner up and do a turn and talk after you ask a question. Students will learn from one another, it increases dialogue in the classroom, and it helps model cooperative learning.

Flip your leadership - This dissertation on collective teacher efficacy by Rachel Eells shows that when teachers feel a low level of efficacy, they don’t feel that they have an impact on students. When teachers and leaders co-construct a faculty meeting, and make it more about professional development and sharing best practices, those teachers with a low level of efficacy will more likely feel like they are a part of a group and hopefully feel as though they can make an impact on students. That’s a major reason to flip your leadership. However, here are five other reasons leaders should flip their leadership.

Work with an instructional coach - As an instructional coaching trainer for Knight I see the benefits of working with an instructional coach. Unfortunately, not all school districts use coaches in the spirit that Jim has researched, which creates a negative attitude around coaching. Coaches can help us see our blind spots in the classroom, which will help us improve in our instruction. Take the opportunity to work with a coach in your school. Go through a full instructional coaching improvement cycle.

Engage in an authentic Teacher Observation - Leaders and teachers should co-construct a goal, provide feedback specifically on what leaders observed in the classroom, and then offer resources to help the teacher meet the goal. Leaders should go back one more time to observe the improvement that took place. Let’s approach teacher observations as if we really want to learn something from them instead of just getting them done.

Deepen your PLN - A PLN is considered either a professional learning network or personal learning network depending on who you are talking to. If you haven’t really joined a PLN, consider joining Twitter (“Why Educators Should Join Twitter”) or finding a group on Facebook like Teachers Throwing Out Grades, Instructional Leadership, or the Instructional Coaching Group. If you have started a PLN, consider finding ways to deepen the relationship through creating or participating in an edcamp. PLNs, if they include the right people, are a great way to get us to stretch our thinking on a variety of topics.

What is your list of possible places to start?

Connect with Peter on Twitter.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Geralt.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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