Navigating Difficult Conversations

“… communication is at the heart of everything educators do. Our schools are only as good as the conversations within them.”

Jim Knight (Better Conversations, 2015)

Coaching is an Art, not a Science

As I look ahead to my second year as an instructional coach, I am excited to continue practicing coaching conversations. At times – while reading books, online articles, connecting with other coaches on Twitter, learning with and from my colleagues – I have felt overwhelmed about the ‘right’ way to coach. On many occasions, I have been reminded that coaching – like teaching – is an art, not a science. I am also reminded that coaching conversations (and effective communication in general) can be very simple. As mentioned in The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever (2016), instructional coaching does not have to be overcomplicated, overly theoretical or overthought. I also really appreciate Kathy Perret’s recent blog post The KEYS to Coaching Conversations which also recommends that coaches keep things simple. I am looking forward to using these resources, as well as re-reading Elena Aguilar’s books The Art of Coaching: Effective Strategies for School Transformation (2013) and The Art of Coaching Teams: Building Resilient Communities That Transform Schools (2016) to remind myself of what I learned at her workshop, as I continue to discover and refine my own personal coaching style during coaching conversations.

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Difficult Conversations

While I want to continue to practice and reflect on my coaching conversations so that I can improve, I have also spent much time this summer thinking about how to navigate difficult conversations in a broader sense. During my first year as an instructional coach (within a newly-adopted coaching model), I found myself involved in – and sometimes facilitating – many difficult conversations. Perhaps surprisingly, these difficult conversations were rarely with the teachers I am responsible for coaching; my experiences with difficult conversations during my first year were not often related to one-on-one coaching. More often, the difficult conversations I found myself in happened when collaborating with peers, other colleagues or administrators.

“Crucial Conversations” need to be “Better Conversations”

In Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High (2012), Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler define “crucial conversations” as those that involve opposing opinions, high stakes and strong emotions. Sometimes the difficult conversations I participated in left me inspired, uplifted and in awe of what a team can accomplish together. However, there were times when I should have spoken up during a difficult conversation, but I remained quiet. There were times when I felt frustrated, dismissed or undervalued. There were times I saw others silenced, or noticed tension, and did not know how to shift the dynamic. Perhaps there were times others were uncomfortable or frustrated, but I was unaware. The perspective of my new role helped me realize that for much of my career I was probably able to avoid many crucial conversations, or perhaps I sometimes reacted with silence by withdrawing or avoiding when conversations become difficult. Crucial Conversations explains that when people feel unsafe, they become either silent (masking, avoiding, or withdrawing) or violent (controlling, labeling or attacking). In my current role, moving to silence is not an option, since “better conversations” are needed to ensure trust building and strong relationships. In his book Better Conversations: Coaching Ourselves and Each Other to be More Credible, Caring and Connected (2015), Jim Knight says “one of the most important and powerful ways we can improve our schools is to improve the way we interact with each other.”

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Constructive Conflict

During the past year I learned about many aspects of Adaptive Schools through colleagues who have previously been trained. (I am very much looking forward to receiving this training at my school in the upcoming year!) Not surprisingly, I have noticed many similarities between The Adaptive School: A Sourcebook for Developing Collaborative GroupsCrucial Conversations and Better Conversations as I reflected on my own “communication beliefs and habits” (Knight, 2016). Crucial Conversations refers to the importance of building shared understanding, ensuring everyone feels safe enough to put ideas on the table, and the need for clear decision making processes. Adaptive Schools uses the terms “constructive conflict”, “ways of talking” (dialogue vs discussion) and “The Seven Norms of Collaboration” (toolkit linked here).

the adaptive school

Areas of Growth

In addition to continuing to focus on the work of Adaptive Schools, my summer reading has given me some new areas of focus to help me improve my ability to navigate difficult conversations without ‘overcomplicating things’.

Crucial Conversations explains that mutual purpose is an “entrance condition” and mutual respect is a “continuance condition” in order for constructive, healthy conversations to occur. The book also recommends simply asking yourself the following questions during – or in preparation for – difficult conversations:

  • What do I really want for myself?
  • What do I really want for others?
  • What do I really want for the relationship?
  • How would I behave if I really wanted these results?

Knight outlines the following Better Conversations Beliefs that also seem simple but necessary:

  1. I see conversations partners as equals.
  2. I want to hear what others have to say.
  3. I believe people should have a lot of autonomy.
  4. I don’t judge others.
  5. Conversation should be back and forth.
  6. Conversation should be life-giving.

The four questions from Crucial Conversations and Knight’s beliefs about communication are helpful for both one-on-one coaching conversations, and difficult conversations in general. To be an effective communicator, one must be aware not only of the content of the conversation, but also have an awareness of others AND self-awareness. It is not always easy to manage everything going on in a conversation, but I know I will more confidently and effectively navigate difficult conversations with practice and reflection. The following advice from Better Conversations also resonated with me as areas in which I want to focus in order to improve my communication habits:

  • “see each conversation as a learning opportunity, not a telling opportunity”
  • “seek first to understand, then be understood” (from Covey’s 7 habits of Highly Effective People)
  • avoid formulating a response before the speaker is finished
  • when it comes to questioning, “technique … is not as important as the mindset you bring”
  • do not be too busy with tasks to connect with others – be fully present and be persistent in connecting with others

Instead of looking back at missed opportunities or mistakes made in previous difficult conversations, I find myself excited and hopeful that I am better prepared for future “crucial conversations”. Elena Aquilar’s blog post Managing Conflict in School Leadership Teams reassures me that I have made some good decisions in the past by naming conflict, reflecting on when it is appropriate to address conflict, and referring teams back to their norms.

Empathy, Trust and Relationships

I ended the school year with a reflection to remind myself that coaching is all about empathy, trust and relationships. After much reflection and learning about how to best navigate difficult conversations, it seems I have circled back to the same realization. By asking myself the four questions from Crucial Conversations and by reflecting on my beliefs and practicing habits of communication as outlined in Better Conversations, I have found manageable strategies to empathize with others and build trusting relationships that will allow me to more effectively handle difficult conversations. I am looking forward to another year of growth in my instructional coaching role!

In schools, better conversations can dramatically improve educator and student learning. When teachers are clearer, ask better questions, and foster dialogue, their students learn more.

Jim Knight (Better Conversations, 2015)

Better conversations also stand at the heart of professional learning in schools. Instructional coaches who learn to be better at listening, questioning, building emotional connections, and fostering dialogue become more effective.

Jim Knight (Better Conversations, 2016)

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Reflections on my 1st Year of Instructional Coaching

A New Role

This time last year, I was nervously excited after accepting a 6-12 science instructional coach position. It was not an easy decision to step away from my role as a biology teacher in an interdisciplinary PBL program; I had been wonderfully challenged more than ever before in my 16 year teaching career as I worked collaboratively with other Innovation Institute teachers to develop and implement the program, and to design interdisciplinary projects. However, instructional coaching seemed like a great opportunity to grow professionally by further developing interpersonal and leadership skills that I had been using as a collaborative team member, PLC facilitator, and Innovation Institute Program Coordinator. The focus on coaching science teachers was also a perfect fit, as I have been so inspired by recent shifts in education required by CCSS and NGSS.

The Importance of Relationships, Trust and Growth Mindset

I was certainly nervous about being hired as an instructional coach with no prior experience (particularly since the coaching model was also new!), but I also felt that the most important aspect of being a good instructional coach was to focus on building relationships and nurturing trust. I also knew that my focus on encouraging a growth mindset in students would also benefit me in my work with teachers. I have learned so much this year reading dozens of books, listening to podcasts, watching videos, attending the NSTA conference in Atlanta and the Marzano Lab in Denver, working with teachers, and collaborating with the rest of the K-12 coaching team at Shanghai American School. I am much more aware of my strengths – and also very aware of how much more I want to learn! However, I still feel very strongly that relationships, trust, and a growth mindset are the most important aspects of both successful coaching and building effective collaborative teams. I am also even more aware that it takes patience and time to build relationships and trust, as well as encourage growth mindsets.

A New Coaching Model

When I started as an instructional coach at the beginning of this school year, instructional coaches had only existed at our school for two years. This year, our school shifted from having three instructional coaches in the MS and only one instructional coach in the HS to having a team of five subject-specific coaches working across both divisions. In this context, I knew that I would have to be patient while teachers, coaches, and administrators worked to build a shared understanding of the roles that coaches can play and the benefits coaches can bring to individual teachers and collaborative teams in our shared desire to improve student learning. Since instructional coaching is still so new at our school, it was really important for me to reinforce repeatedly that:

  • coaches do not evaluate teachers
  • coaches work with ALL teachers
  • coaches do not need to have all of the answers in order to help facilitate professional learning for individual teachers or teams

How to Build Relationships?

A blog post from Insight Education Group emphasizes that instructional coaching programs are more likely to “yield real improvement in teaching and learning” if they are “grounded in a strong, shared understanding of effective coaching.” Attempting to clarify the role of an instructional coach is one strategy mentioned by @MrsRyder58 in a TeachBoost blog post entitled Strategies for Building Relationships as an Instructional Coach. She also mentions classroom visits as another important strategy, which I hope to do in a more intentional and strategic way next year. I really like Megan’s suggestion to create a newsletter for teachers based upon “lessons in the classroom, teacher collaboration, and resources.” This would help teachers to be more aware of what is happening in the school, provide an opportunity to celebrate successes, and ensure teachers know how coaches can help improve student learning and support professional growth.

The Importance of Empathy

While I understood that it would take time for our new coaching model to be fully implemented, I also had to practice patience with respect to waiting for teachers to ask for support. It is not up to the coach to determine what changes or improvements could be made. Another TeachBoost post by @ShastaLooper entitled Bringing Empathy to Coaching reminds me that it is not only patience that is needed, but also empathy. As a new instructional coach, I have been learning the importance of the following aspects of empathy suggested by @ShastaLooper:

  • setting aside assumptions,
  • helping teachers to recognize their own strengths and areas in which they want to grow, and
  • listening to understand and question.

Areas of Growth

Listening to understand is one area in which I still need more practice and reflection, as there have been many times this year when I acted as a consultant or collaborator in order to help build understanding about pedagogy, instruction or assessment – particularly with respect to the shifts required by the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). While these roles are appropriate at times, I am very aware that much of the power lies in wearing the coaching ‘hat’. As I think ahead to my second year in this role, I am looking forward to creating and taking advantage of opportunities to coach ‘heavy’ much more often than I am coaching ‘light’ (Are You Coaching Heavy or Light? by Joellen Killion, Learning Forward).

Building a Culture of Collaborative Inquiry & Reflective Practice

I am beyond inspired that our K-12 instructional coaching team has been empowered by the leaders at our school to take our commitment to teachers and collaborative teams to the next level by working to build a culture of collaborative inquiry and reflective practice. While I am definitely looking forward to a restful summer and lots of quality time with my family and friends, I am already feeling optimistic and excited about my second year as an instructional coach. I am beyond grateful for this amazing learning opportunity.

 

I hear and I forget.

I see and I remember.

I do and I understand.

I reflect and I learn.

– Carmen Freisen
(Costa & Garmston, 2012)

 

Transforming my Math Teaching

I can’t believe that I have not written a blog post since September. I suppose this is evidence that it has been another busy year.I’ve been busy as the mom of three boys since August, as we are fostering a toddler. It has been such an amazing experience, but of course it is difficult to fit in everything (eg. writing blog posts). At the same time, I’ve been learning so much teaching for my second year in the Innovation Institute (an integrated PBL program), as well as being Innovation Coordinator for the program. And this year I’ve finished the final two of five workshops for Math Specialists in International Schools (MSIS).

I am not exaggerating when I say that the MSIS workshops with Erma Anderson and Steve Leinwand have helped to transform my math teaching. I am teaching biology and IB Math Studies this year, so unfortunately I am not teaching Common Core at present. However, there are still so many strategies from the MSIS workshops that I can incorporate into my math teaching – and sometimes in my science teaching as well.

What do I now do differently?

  • I keep my lessons as simple as possible.
  • I provide images/prompts/questions and ask students ‘What do you notice?’ and/or ‘What do you wonder?’
  • I plan for gradual release (PPTs) of information for problems and rich tasks.
  • I try to be intentional about eliciting student explanations of thinking (Why? How do you know? Convince us. Explain that please. How did you “see” that?)

There are some strategies that I used previously, but continue to reflect on and improve:

  • providing descriptive feedback (not a grade until summative)
  • opportunities for self- and peer-assessment
  • encouraging collaboration
  • using rich tasks whenever possible
  • having students (not only the teacher) model their thinking for each other
  • encouraging use of multiple strategies
  • fewer questions for homework

What does every good lesson need? It is obvious that a good lesson starts with the goal or objective; should have a task, problem or activity; and some sort of evidence of success. I have been more focused on also planning key questions in advance. This has helped me to elicit student thinking and student discourse in a more intentional and effective manner.

If you would like to have a better understanding of Common Core and how it can transform teaching and LEARNING in your classroom (and ultimately ensure students are excited, engaged and confident math learners) I highly recommend the MSIS (Math Specialists in International Schools) workshops with Erma Anderson and Steve Leinwand. One of the best professional development experiences I have had in many years!

What IS Innovation?

This is the second year that I have been teaching students in a new program called Innovation Institute at Shanghai American School. I couldn’t help but reflect on this program as I read Part 1 of The Innovator’s Mindset. In fact, I actually read this book previously, but I am reading the book through a different lens now that I am teaching in the Innovation Institute. I am so grateful that my colleagues and I seem to be on the right track with this program…. our Institute is something “new and better” for students who want to learn in a collaborative, integrated, project-based learning environment.

I completely agree that we need to prepare students for jobs that do not currently exist, and it is our job as educators to help learners become confident creators, effective leaders and CRITICAL THINKERS. I love this short film (11min) The Adaptable Mind that says the skills people need to flourish in today’s world are creativity, curiosity, initiative, multi-disciplinary thinking, and empathy. Students have access to so much knowledge that what they really need to know is what to DO with this knowledge. ‘Soft skills’ such as those mentioned in The Adaptable Mind or the 4C’s (collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking) are becoming more and more valued. These ‘soft skills’ are often what set students or prospective employees apart from everyone else.

The following quote in Chapter 2: The Innovators Mindset really resonated with me:

We need to move beyond the idea that an education is something that is provided for us and toward the idea that an education is something that we create for ourselves. – Stephen Downes (2010)

Today, I shared the above quote with my Innovation Institute students before they spent time finalizing their ideology, mechanics and dynamics for a game that they are creating relating to stimulus material about competition. They will create their first prototype this week. I reminded them that they will get out of this project what they put into it; the depth of thought and how much they challenge each other will determine how much they learn and grow.

Another aspect of this week’s reading that resonated with me is the idea of the innovator’s mindset. I have long been a fan of Carol Dweck and have encouraged a growth mindset in my math classes in particular. In fact, I have shown this amazing video A Math Major Talks About Fear to my high school math students for the last three years and I have had my grade 9 students complete the free online course from Stanford called How to Learn Math: For Students. I have also spoken to my students about the importance of resiliency and grit in the context of having a growth mindset. However, I love that I can now take this a step further with the innovator’s mindset – students need to CREATE something with the knowledge they have acquired. I often intentionally plan units and lessons around students creating in order to demonstrate their understanding, but I have could do a better job of making sure that students are aware of WHY creating something is so important. If students create something ‘new and better’ – which they certainly have the opportunity to do frequently in the Innovation Institute – they are certainly pushing themselves to deeply understand concepts and think critically about what they have learned and how to demonstrate their understanding.

So why do I feel more confident that the Innovation Institute at Shanghai American School is on the right track after #IMMOOC Week 2? Students in the Innovation Institute are focusing on the 4C’s, visible thinking strategies and design thinking. Students are learning about empathy as they collaborate and work through conflict with their peers. Students have many opportunities to learn to be comfortable with uncertainty or ambiguity, sharing ideas, accepting criticism, and taking risks. The students who have opted to participate in the Innovation Institute are taking a risk simply by choosing to be educated in a way that is new and different from their previous experience.

I have been inspired by my students and colleagues in so many ways this year. I have never before described myself as ‘innovative’, but now I hope to challenge myself to find NEW and BETTER ways to demonstrate an innovator’s mindset.

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