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.

the coaching habit the art of coaching the art of coaching teams.jpeg

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.”

crucial conversations.jpg better conversations.jpeg

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)


My Favorite NGSS Resources

One of my colleagues at Shanghai American School inspired me to gather all of the NGSS resources I have used and love in one easy to navigate padlet (see below).

I had a list of sites available internally for the teachers I support, but it was not visually appealing or easy to navigate. Hopefully this padlet is an improvement!

What are YOUR favorite resources for NGSS implementation? What resources am I missing?


Made with Padlet


Together We Are Brilliant

“Alone we are smart, together we are brilliant.” Steven Anderson

I have been so inspired in the last week to actively reach out to other educators – to learn from them, but also to share innovation that I have been a part of. I also want to encourage sharing within my school so that we create an environment where risk-taking is encouraged.

In my experience, it is true that when you are trying to do something new (and hopefully better!), it is very easy for others to criticize. ‘Pushback’ from parents and colleagues can be discouraging, but not if you know to expect it as part of the process. It is important to have a good support network to help you continue forward until people start to see the benefits of what you are doing. It is also important to focus only on what you can control, and to try not to let negative talk or criticism get you down. It will pass. And, it helps to remind yourself and others that “our thinking must focus on what learning truly can be, not what it has been.” George Couros #IMMOOC

I’ve decided that I need to really commit to using Twitter more regularly. First, I want to start by sharing amazing things that are happening in our school. We have an incredible open learning environment for our science department and our Innovation Institute program, so it should be easy for me to take pictures and post them to my twitter account so that we can appreciate and recognize each other’s efforts. Second, I want to share out important parts of our the final project for the year in the Innovation Institute. I want to share what we are doing in the Institute beyond the walls of Shanghai American School.

Here is my first item to share (already posted on twitter @foley_amy) about the Innovation Institute:

This week, 9 student “project managers” determined the groups for their final project. All 37 students shared their top strengths, preferred role (art or tech in this project), as well as students they would prefer not to work with (often that they have worked together several times on projects) and students who they would really like to work with. The main rule during this process was that project managers could only discuss students’ strengths – no negative talk. We gave the project managers a few tips, and they ended up determining groups in a very similar manner to what the teachers have done to make project groups this year. I was so proud watching these students through the process. They have grown so much throughout their two years in the Innovation Institute. It makes all of the hard work worth it, and I am so excited to see where this final project takes us. What a wonderful journey this year has been…


Innovation = New & Better

Educators are so much more likely to be innovative if they work together with their colleagues. At a recent workshop – Math Specialists in Internationals Schools (MSIS) with Steve Leinwand and Erma Anderson – it was inspiring to create a new and improved lesson to introduce students to calculus that is connected to the real world (skateboard ramps) and first develops a conceptual understanding. This is not a huge mind-boggling innovation, but it is something new and better for students. I’ve said in earlier blog posts that these 5 MSIS workshops have been transformative for myself and the other math educators who attended.

I love that Katie mentioned in the live session this week that often teachers’ innovations are not shared and do not leave their classroom. I feel fortunate that my high school (Shanghai American School) has embraced the PLC at Work™ model. It is powerful to be able to plan instruction and assessment as a group of teachers. I think some teachers may feel more comfortable ‘taking risks’ and implementing change as a PLC instead of on their own.

I do not tend to see myself as a risk taker in life (no plans to go bungee jumping any time soon!), but I do like to constantly reflect on my teaching practice and I do love to try new things if I feel confident that there could be an improved outcome for students. I would like to work on being more networked. Hopefully this #IMMOOC #IMMOOC2 will help!


Innovators Mindset #IMMOOC

I am so inspired by the concepts in the Innovator’s Mindset, by the Week 1 #IMMOOC discussion with @burgessdave and @gcouros, and by the very idea of this MOOC. I have completed quite a few MOOCs previously, but this particular MOOC really resonates with me. I think this is partly because for the first time, I can feel that I am legitimately doing something innovative in being a part of an integrated PBL program called the Innovation Institute at Shanghai American School (@SASchina). It is also because this #IMMOOC really models what we want our students to be doing – taking control of their own learning!

What do I see as the purpose of education? Why might innovation be crucial in education?

I think that the purpose of education today should be to help students develop into learners who are confident problem solvers. They need to be able to collaborate, find information, and think critically. I honestly think that our students will need to be able to solve some serious problems in their lifetime, and they need the skills to be able to think creatively, apply what they know, and work with others to make connections. If teachers are not modeling innovation for students and giving students opportunities to be innovative, then we are not preparing them for a future that could be very different than it is now. In his book Critical Path (1982), Buckminster Fuller estimated that in the 1900s, knowledge doubled every century. Recently, it has been said that knowledge has been doubling every 13 months, but that doubling soon may be as fast as every 24 hours. There is so much information available to students now that education needs to adjust so that the focus is not on what students know, but how well they ask questions, how they apply their knowledge, and what insightful, interdisciplinary connections or solutions they can develop.


“Change is an opportunity to do something amazing.”

I am so grateful for the opportunity to be a teacher in relatively new HS program at Shanghai American School called the Innovation Institute.We have a flexible schedule and an amazing new learning space in which to continue to build a program that focuses on 21st century competencies (4 C’s)  through problem/project-based learning (PBL) and the integration of Biology, English, AP Seminar and a newly-created Innovation & Design course that has a brand new Maker Space and Fab Lab at its disposal. I am thankful for the opportunity to help students make connections between their disciplines and have the opportunity to design innovative products to represent their learning. I will post more about this program as the year progresses.


This quote is also timely since I have just spent the weekend at a PLC at Work conference here at Shanghai American School. Change can be overwhelming at times (sometimes it is others’ negativity and resistance to change that discourages us), but I love this reminder that amazing things will not happen without change. I also loved the snowball analogy that @burgessdave shared in the Week 1 #IMMOOC discussion. We have to start small to build a snowball, just like we must start with a small group of like-minded educators to build the foundation for a culture that does something different.

It really stands out to me that both the PLC at Work conference and the introduction to #innovatorsmindset remind us of two important things:

  • schools too often reward student compliance, which prevents creativity and innovative thinking; and
  • schools need to ensure that teacher collaboration and innovation is valued by making time for it during the work day and minimizing irrelevant staff meetings, requirements, etc.

I am so inspired and excited to dig into The Innovator’s Mindset #IMMOOC, and also to dig into the work that needs to be done for our Innovation Institute Professional Learning Community (PLC). Looking forward to committing to regularly self-reflecting and documenting my learning journey on this blog. See you soon 🙂

Encouraging a Growth Mindset in Math

One of my areas of passion as an educator is helping students develop a growth mindset. I first stumbled across the idea of fixed vs growth mindsets when I read Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Since then, I have tried many different strategies in my classroom to develop an awareness and educate my students about the importance of having a growth mindset. As both a science and math educator, I have felt a strong need to educate mathematics students about fixed and growth mindsets. In my experience, it is much more common for students to have a fixed mindset in math than in my science courses.

A fixed mindset occurs when someone thinks that their ability or intelligence in an area is static. For example, they may feel that they are not a “math person” and therefore are not interested in putting forth much effort. Or, they may feel that they are “smart” when it comes to math and may actually be fearful of being challenged or making a mistake as it may challenge their identity as a strong math student and/or make them appear less “smart”.

In contrast, students with a growth mindset understand that they learn when they make mistakes. They also understand that the more they challenge themselves, the more confident and capable they will become.


If you are interested in learning more, here are some great resources:

If you are new to the idea of growth mindset, I highly encourage you to educate yourself so that you can start to make small changes in your classroom. I work at an international school where math is highly valued. Even still, every year, there are at least 1 or 2 students who seem to really transform; they become more engaged and much more confident in math. Encouraging growth mindsets in my math classroom inspired me and has improved learning for ALL of my students. I hope you have the same experience 🙂

Key Takeaways from MSIS Institute #2

The second MSIS institute was just as enlightening and inspiring as the first! It focused on the Number and Operations strand and progressions of the CCSS.

Good reminders for me included:

  • the importance of focusing on the big ideas of quantity, change, shape, dimension, and chance
  • great lessons are often based upon mini-lessons, workshop tasks, and an exit ticket
  • tasks should promote reasoning and problem solving
  • purposeful questions will encourage effective discourse between students
  • procedural fluency follows from conceptual understanding

People often talk about the need for focus, rigor, and clarity. What should this mean in math? It should mean FEWER topics, DEEPER understanding, and more EXAMPLES and STRATEGIES.

I really loved the explanation from Steve Leinwand that the “sweet spot” of instruction is “YOU – I – WE”. Students explore, the teacher may check for understanding or ask purposeful questions, then students work together to develop their understanding. Traditionally, a lesson would more likely be “I-WE-YOU”, but of course current research shows that best practice is a more student-centered approach. Exploration should not be “YOU-YOU-YOU” – there needs to be a partnership between students and teachers. The teacher should always intentionally facilitate/coach the lesson and not simply leave students to figure things out on their own. The “YOU-I-WE” approach is more likely to ensure that students are empowered, engaging in productive struggle, and constructing viable arguments.

Based upon the “YOU-I-WE” methodology, we had to work in a team to create a mini-lesson. We needed to start with the standard, then write it in a more student friendly learning target. Here is the mini-lesson on polynomials that we created, based upon adapting a problem from another site.

Some very useful websites from this Institute were:

The goals that I have set for myself between now and MSIS Institute #3 are:

  1. create &/or revise a rich lesson/task based upon the idea of ‘gradual release’, such as the 3 Act Lessons created by Dan Meyer)
  2. use exit tickets (or perhaps entrance tickets) more consistently (I often feel that I run out of time)
  3. as a PLC facilitator, guide my team to unwrap CCSS standards to create learning targets for a unit on circles

On May 7th, 2016, this great Edutopia article Harnessing the Power of the Productive Struggle seems to be an amazing description of the “you – I – we” focus that can be so powerful in math classrooms.


Balancing Teaching & Life

I adore teaching, and I am always trying to become a better teacher. Teaching is not just my job, it’s my passion. Unfortunately, sometimes this passion is not healthy or sustainable long term. There are times – more and more in the last couple of years – when I find that I do not have a healthy balance in my life. Teaching can sometimes take over to the point that I can’t find the time to work out or make healthy eating choices. It can even undermine quality time with my sons and husband. I realize that this is NOT okay.

Last year, for the first time ever, work-related stress started to affect me physically at times – feeling tired or not sleeping well, or even feeling some low-level anxiety that made it more difficult to relax. So I am now making it a priority to ensure that I have a healthier work-life balance. I am starting 2016 with some personal goals:

Of course, I still have my professional goals. My ‘official’ professional goals this year are to:

  • develop and use rich mathematical tasks to engage and motivate students (collaborative math department goal);
  • collaborate with my geometry Professional Learning Community (PLC) to develop clear learning targets and common formative and summative assessments (PLC goal); and
  • have students more deeply engage in the assessment and reporting process in order to develop self-awareness of what they have learned and what they still need to learn.

I know that this year feels stressful and hectic since I am a part of a couple of new initiatives this year. Although both initiatives excite and inspire me, it is still a big learning curve for both! One initiative is our high school’s Innovation Institute, which is an integrated project/problem-based learning program. The first cohort – two classes of 29 students total – is in their second year of the program (grade 10). I am the grade 10 biology teacher, but I get to collaborate with 3 other subject teachers (math, history and English) in order to design learning experiences that are interconnected and require students to inquire and work together. In addition to this, I am the facilitator of the geometry PLC. PLCs at Work – as well as the incorporation of Extended Learning time for students – are new to our high school this year, and it can certainly be challenging at times during this implementation phase. While both of these initiatives are something I believe strongly in, it is a lot of work and it can be hard at times to feel unsure if we are doing the ‘right’ thing.

In light of (or perhaps despite?!) everything going on at school, I think this blog will be excellent for my professional growth. My hope is that this blog will keep me focused on what is most important to me as a teacher. I also hope that it will remind me to prioritize and be more efficient and effective so that I will always have time to put my family and myself first.

Every teacher knows that teaching is not easy. Most teachers are continually trying to improve and learn new things. Like me, many teachers worry about their students and think about work even when they are at home. It can be difficult to “turn off” or forget about a long to-do list. People who are not teachers often think that teaching is an easy job and that we are SO lucky to have so many holidays. The truth is that most teachers are incredibly hard working. Many teachers put in so many hours outside of the regular school day that they eventually burn out, or have the same problems with balance that I have been experiencing. In this situation especially, winter break or summer vacation are crucial for teachers to be able to recharge. (My recent trip to Bali was exactly what I needed  – time with my family and not thinking about work at all!) The last thing I want to do is give so much of myself to teaching that I no longer love it.

I am excited about 2016… Here’s to being the best teacher, wife and mom that I can be, while making sure that I make time to stay mentally, physically and emotional healthy!

Update: The day after I wrote this post, this article from The Guardian (Work-life balance: flexible working can make you ill) popped up in my FB newsfeed. I can only speak for my experience, but of course other professions have similar issues :/