Basketball, Reflection, and Risk Taking…Oh my!

“Let’s make continuous improvement the new status quo.” (Teach, Reflect, Learn p.11, Hall & Simeral) 

I love this quote.  As an educator, I have always tried to demonstrate and emphasize the importance of life-long learning.  I feel life-long learning and improvement go hand in hand with each other.  Problems of practice will often lead us to research/learn about new things.  The challenging part is to then take action from what we have learned.

I recently listened to a podcast talking about the Threshold of Collective Behavior and how people have various thresholds before implementing a change.  The example provided in the podcast is all about free throw shooting in basketball and how it is actually more accurate to shoot underhanded at the free-throw line, but most don’t because of the social pressure of looking like a sissy by shooting that way.  (You can listen to the podcast here: (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.) I think about this because I feel in education we often know what we should be trying but are not actively pursuing it because of the time it would take, the opinions of others, etc.  Unfortunately, those willing to try new things to improve are often labeled as “risk takers” or “brown nosers” and this often deters them from continuing the quality work they are doing.

However, there is a danger in following the crowd.  Much like Wilt Chamberlain experienced when he gave up shooting underhanded free throws, those that follow the siren song of the social group often miss out on the opportunity to excel and succeed to their utmost potential.  Was he still a very talented basketball player? Yes.  However, he was never able to say he played to the best of his abilities because he was too concerned with the opinions of others if he deviated from the “norm”.

Wilt Chamberlain succumbed to the social pressures because his threshold of collective behavior dominated his thoughts about free throws.  In the world of education, we see the consequences of the threshold model in various ways.  When teachers continue to teach things in the same way year after year because it is the way it has always been taught, they are demonstrating a consequence.  As building leaders, implementing change is often hindered because of the varying thresholds.  Also, those who are willing to try a different way may often face scorn or judgment from their colleagues because they are going against the “norm.”  This social pressure can often discourage people from trying something they know may be better.

As leaders we need to be aware of the thresholds of those we work with so we can better maximize their potentials.  We also need to serve as positive cheerleaders so we can keep those willing to try something new from succumbing to the social pressures of others.  If we can make continuous improvement the new status quo, the risk takers won’t be as afraid to continue down the less traveled path.  Eventually, the threshold of collective behavior could turn toward our advantage and I am positive we would see phenomenal things.

Old dog, new trick

We all know the expression, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” However, do we really believe it? I don’t. I believe it truly is possible to learn something new at any age. This holds true for dogs as well. Below is a video of my dog Boomer, showing off a new trick. He’s twelve years old. (In full disclosure, this video is from four years ago…but let’s do the math, he was still 8 years old when he learned how to do this, NOT a puppy in any way).

Why am I sharing this video of my “old” dog? To illustrate this old adage isn’t always the truth. As we approach teachers (some who are more seasoned than others), how do we get them to come to this same conclusion? How do we get someone to realize the power to change and grow is completely within themselves? As a coach, I believe the answers lie in the questions we ask when we are talking with teachers. I have mentioned this thought before, but a well-placed well worded question can be quite powerful in instigating change.

I have struggled with asking the right questions at times and know this is a constant area of growth for coaches. It is a skill that needs constant refinement and practice. Open ended questions are the pathways to better reflection, growth, and change. Often changing one word in a question can shift the respondents answer to a much deeper level of response. Bruce Wellman and Laura Lipton offer several quite powerful word shifts in their book “Got Data? Now What? Creating and Leading Cultures of Inquiry.” One such example is to shift away from “the” and toward “some”. Instead of asking a question such as: “What is the reason why students didn’t grasp this concept?” Ask: “What are some reasons why the students didn’t grasp this concept?” This simple shift opens up the question for quite a bit more inquiry and several more causalities, expanding the path for more possible solutions.

Well worded questions invite thinking and create new possibilities. They motivate growth, ignite passions, and can be uncomfortable at times. They also motivate us to make decisions, seek answers, and ask further questions. Properly worded questions will often inspire us “old” dogs to learn new tricks. I too strive to learn new things and work to push myself outside of my comfort zone (this blog was born from one such push). I’m in the weeds with everyone else and try to practice what I preach. As an offering of this practice, I would like to share with all of you the current questions I am reflecting upon. I receive a coaching email from my local AEA each month. This month, there was a link to some End of Year Reflection Questions provided by Elena Aguilar. She is an instructional coach and author with great resources you can check out here. As the current school year comes to a close, I am beginning to think forward toward this summer and next year, these questions are helping me to reflect upon this year, plan for next year, and think about areas I would like to refine over the summer. Some of the fruits of this reflection may very well end up in this blog in future posts.

Happy reflecting educational friends, cheers to the new tricks you are learning!

Start with the “Why?”

Today we had a professional development session led by one of our teachers.  His name is Todd Siefker and he too has a blog (check it out here).  Todd challenged all of us to think about our “why?”  Why did we go into teaching?  Why did we choose this profession?  With the current political negativity toward educators, why encourage others to pursue the worthy career of education?  Everyone has a why.  When we take a moment to reflect upon our own why, it is quite revitalizing.

Why did I go into education?

I was blessed to grow up in a family that values education, not because they were highly educated, but because they all recognized how much learning can enhance life.  My grandfather completed the eighth grade and then went to work for the railroad.  However, he continued to read and would study the dictionary to learn new words.  He would complete the crossword puzzle in the paper each day and would always be up for a mean game of scrabble.  He would check out cookbooks from the library and would spend his time off (when he wasn’t watching Days of Our Lives or working on crossword puzzles) mastering new cuisine.

My grandmother grew up in a time when education wasn’t necessarily promoted for women.  She attended a one room school house in rural South Dakota, as a non-English speaker.  Her first day in school she only spoke Czech and cried the entire day because she didn’t know what was happening.  As she began to learn English, she made it a point to teach her youger siblings because she didn’t want them to have the same language difficulty when they began school.  Upon completing eighth grade, her father told her she was “educated enough for a woman” and wanted her to stay on the farm to help with her younger siblings instead of moving into town to attend high school.  Not to be deterred, she became a juvenile delinquent on the farm so her parents would send her to live with relatives in the city.  Upon arrival in the city, she enrolled in high school and worked at a local movie theater.  When she finished high school, she used the money she had earned from working at the movie theater to pay for beauty school.   She eventually opened her own shop and was very successful.  She continued to take classes at the local community college and read voraciously.    She encouraged her children and grandchildren to become life long learners as well.

Both of my parents attended college (altough my mother will be the first to admit she hadn’t planned on going to college until she met my father and he “made it look like so much fun.”)  My dad graduated with a business degree with a minor in psychology and my mom graduated with an art degree with a minor in elementary teaching. They have both continued to learn about their passions.  My dad has always had a passion for cars and can still be found researching how to restore various automobiles. He loves to work on the jumble puzzle in the paper and discuss psychology and philosophy with people. My mom loves literature and reads every day.  She also loves to play scrabble and completes the sudoku puzzle each day in the paper.  They would also read to my brother and I every night.  They instilled in us a love for  literature and learning.

I was also able to grow up with a teacher as a parent.  My mom taught elementary school for 42 years.  When I was little, she would let me tag along with her on the weekends and the few weeks before school began to help her set up her classroom.  I loved the smell of the newly cleaned rooms and felt like a part of a secret society getting to follow her into the teacher lounge, to the teacher mail tills, and occasionally to the teacher store.  As I grew older, I still enjoyed helping her out and would volunteer during breaks.  I even returned home a few times during college to help her chaperone field trips to Ash Falls, SD to see the fossil beds.  Watching third graders encounter these fossil beds was amazing.  Their faces would fill with wonder and you would hear them begin to whisper and question in awe “Wow…look at those!  How old are those bones?”

I have always seen school as a magical place.  I still do.  On any given day we as educators have the opportunity to introduce students to new passions.  We get the privilege of expanding their worldviews.  We get the great honor of being able to teach them how to question, research, and learn.  I don’t take any of this lightly.

Why did I go into education?  I didn’t enter this profession for the money or the time off (who really does?).  I became a teacher because I love to learn and I want to foster that love of learning in others.  I want to lead by example.  I want to demonstrate you are never too old to learn something new, much like my family showed me.  Learning enriches lives, opens doors, and broadens our worldviews.  That is why I went into education.  I’d love to hear your “why.”  Feel free to share in the comments below!  I look forward to hearing from you.


Planting Seeds

Seedling Seed Plant Flowerpot Engine Flower Pot

Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant. – Robert Louis Stevenson

I have struggled in my position to feel as though I have made a difference. When I was in the classroom I had many indicators: student data, positive student feedback, students coming back to visit me and tell me how things are going, walk through data, etc.  With the shift from working with students to working more exclusively with teachers, many of these indicators are gone.  Adults are not as eager as students to let you know when you have helped them implement a change.  How do I now know when I have impacted someone?  The indicators are a bit more obscure and more difficult to spot…but they still exist.  Sometimes I just have to look a little bit harder to find them.

I like to think of what I do now as planting seeds.  Every conversation with a teacher is an opportunity to plant seeds of change.  A carefully crafted question can lead to shifts in thinking, further questioning, and new ideas.  Often questions posed in a coaching session will sit without an answer for days or even weeks.  Sometimes it takes a while for the teacher to warm up to the question or be prepared to seek the answers.  What is one indicator of success for a coach? When the teacher brings the question back up in conversation or mentions a new strategy they have been thinking of implementing because of the question.

In coaching there are two types: coaching light and heavy.  The first year in the position was admittedly more coaching light than I would have liked.  However, those too were opportunities to plant seeds of change that would eventually (in my third year in the position) come to fruition and lead to some true heavy coaching moments.  One such “seed” was a test bank of formative assessments geared toward my content area.  My first year in the position I created this bank of questions and let my colleagues know it was a resource they could access.  However, no one seemed interested.  Flash forward to this past week (Two full years later) and I now am working with a teacher who is not only accessing this resource but is wanting to have their students goal set and track their own learning from their scores on these formative checkpoints.  This too is an indicator.

When I am in a coaching cycle with a teacher, I will often send an email to “check in” on how things are going.  Most times, this simple email asks two questions: How are things going with (fill in teacher goal here)?  What can I do to help you with (insert teacher goal)?  This year I have had something quite amazing happen…I’ve received some unprovoked “check in” emails from teachers I am coaching.  These little gems materialize in my inbox filled with updates and questions for me and they are my new favorite thing.  This inbox surprise always helps to illustrate how I am helping teachers in my school.  The fact they are unprovoked (I haven’t asked for them or sent my “check in” email to guide a reflection) make them extra special to me.  These small little emails can really give me a boost when I am struggling.

I have also begun to capitalize off of the best type of advertising, word of mouth.  These are pretty quick to recognize, they usually begin with a teacher beginning a conversation with the following statement: “I was talking to (insert colleague name here) and they were telling me how they were working with you on implementing (insert goal, strategy, new practice here).  Can we talk about how that could work in my room?”  I began to experience this toward the end of my first year.  As I continue on in my position this happens more and more frequently.  When I am struggling with how much of a difference I am making, I try and focus on these referrals.  There is nothing more powerful than word of mouth.  If I wasn’t helping teachers, they wouldn’t be sharing with their colleagues how I have helped them and I wouldn’t be getting these referrals.

What is the point of this blog post?  I’m not trying to brag or celebrate my own successes.  I’m trying to offer some encouragement to my fellow consulting teachers (instructional coaches, building leaders) out in the field.  Take heart, even when it seems you are not making a difference, you are.  The seeds just may not have sprouted yet.  Be vigilant…sometimes the smallest change in circumstance can cause the greatest reward.

What seeds have you planted?  What indicators have you experienced?  I would love to hear your thoughts!




The initial spark

I’ve contemplated starting a blog for several months.  It all began with a professional development session I attended with George Couros on why educators should have blogs this past fall.  I remember feeling inspired and leaving the session thinking “I have to do this!”

I began exploring more blogs, voraciously reading what other educators had posted and the self-doubt began to set in.  I have always enjoyed writing but I stress about the publishing aspect.  I panic when I think of others reading and judging what I have written. Thoughts and panic invade my brain:  What if my grammar is incorrect?  I know I’m comma happy. Have I used too many incorrectly?  Will people stop reading my writing because of errors?  What will readers think of what I have written?  Will they all hate it?

I finished a second graduate degree about two years ago and have missed the formalized reflective assignments over my learning.  I embrace my nerdy tendencies and will admit I LOVE to synthesize my learning through writing.  After reading new things, I will often write reflections over my learning and my ideas for implementation (I just don’t share them).  What finally pushed me past the fear?  Honestly, it was a combination of things.  The previously mentioned PD inspired me…but it wasn’t enough.  I needed a few more things to happen:

  • A second calling – My school district began to offer a free platform for blogging and as a Consulting Teacher (many places would call my role an Instructional Coach), I felt compelled to explore the inner workings of the site.  If I understood how it worked, I would be able to include it in my toolbox of ideas to help other teachers refine their craft.
  • Encouragement to move beyond the fear – I was perusing my PLN on Twitter over lunch one day and stumbled upon a tweet sharing a writing resource for students.  My school district has implemented writing across the curriculum so I am always looking for new resources for teachers related to writing.  Thanks to Pixar and Khan Academy, I walked away with a lesson of my own: Everyone is a storyteller.  Why should I let my fear sideline me from having a blog?
  • A fond remembrance – I recently moved and as I was purging my belongings I stumbled across a ratty spiral bound notebook that had clearly seen better days.  Inside were several poorly developed stories (often centering around friendship or how toys had come to life)  and the rambling thoughts of an elementary schooler.  When I was in elementary school (circa 1987) I was in a voluntary “writer’s club”.  I would come to school early with several of my fellow classmates to write.  Every few weeks we would pick something we had written and share it with the group.  If I was unafraid to share at age seven, why thirty years later do I allow fear to stop me?

It was a perfect storm.  Each time the thought popped back into my head a new puzzle piece fell into place until finally I am here, blogging.