Sunday, August 19, 2018

The Case for Coaching Leaders

Growing up as a child I played numerous sports recreationally and in high school.  Upon entering high school   I was not the best athlete by any means, but football was one sport where I excelled more than others, and this led to some time playing in college.  Even though I had some fantastic coaches throughout my days playing competitive sports, I never gave much thought to becoming one myself.  Once I knew that my destiny was to become a teacher that was my sole focus. However, weeks before I was set to begin in my first role I was contacted by one of my former high school football coaches pleading with me to take the open freshman team role.  Initially, I resisted but then decided that this could be an excellent opportunity to connect with more kids and hopefully in the process pass along some of the life lessons that I learned from my former coaches.

I loved coaching football and eventually took on the freshman lacrosse and head ice hockey positions in my school.  For years I was able to teach both in the classroom and on the field.  That is one of the critical points of this post.  In many aspects, coaching is teaching, but without formal grades. As a coach, I provided lessons and strategies on skill development as well as competencies that pertained to excelling at a particular sport.  Each practice involved modeling, guided practice, and either individual or team practice. At the end of each practice, there was a closure activity where we reflected on the events of that day while preparing for a future contest.  The actual game was more or less an assessment of what my players had learned during practice.  

Coaching is so much more than the result of a game, match, or competition.  It is really about helping kids develop many of the qualities and characteristics in life that cannot be measured with an actual number such as leadership, commitment, perseverance, motivation, self-discipline, teamwork, resilience, enthusiasm, and reliability. The positive impact of a good coach can be felt for years and lead to success in both professional and personal aspects of life.  

When we reflect on some of the outcomes I have listed above, it is apparent how important the act of coaching is in numerous professions, not just in athletics. Many school districts invest in instructional and digital coaches to assist teachers in further developing pedagogical capacity in these respective areas.  This is a sound investment indeed, but research from the Wallace Foundation empowers schools to expand support to a group that is most often left out – leaders. In a recent article Marta Aldrich looked at a few studies highlighted below:
When it comes to the impact of school-related factors on student learning, research shows that school leaders are second in importance only to teachers — but also can have a multiplier effect on the quality of teaching. Historically, however, professional development has been limited to periodic workshops and training that focus mostly on administrative, operational, and compliance issues. They rarely receive ongoing, embedded coaching and problem-solving support based on the instructional needs of specific schools.
Leaders need consistent support and feedback on all aspects of the position to continually grown and improve, but the most emphasis should be on issues related to instructional leadership.  If teachers are being coached on research-based instruction and digital pedagogy for example, then leaders need to be well equipped to provide useful feedback and conduct effective observations or evaluations.  The same can be said about PLC’s, use of data, meeting the needs of learners with special needs, innovative practices, space redesign, etc. 



I encourage you to take a look at the links to the research from the Wallace Foundation for more detail on the why and how of coaching leaders.  Peter DeWitt outlines some other key considerations when it comes to coaching leaders.
One of the issues with any type of coaching, and something I found in a small-scale study I did with a little over 250 participating principals, was when principals felt coaching was focused on their needs and remained confidential, as opposed to focusing solely on the needs of the district, it was beneficial to their growth. Leaders, like teachers, need to feel that there is trust when it comes to working with a coach. Additionally, leadership coaching is only an effective means of professional development when it has the following elements of effective professional development:  
  • Happens over an extended period of time 
  • Involves external experts  
  • Teachers/Leaders are deeply engaged  
  • It challenges existing beliefs (Timperely et al. 2007). 
Research has consistently shown that professional learning that leads to school improvement and meaningful changes to practice is ongoing and job-embedded.  It is incumbent upon organizations, boards of education, and school districts to commit to helping teachers and leaders through effective coaching practices.  Larger organizations and districts might be able to make it work within existing structures, but this does not eliminate some of the inherent bias and trust issues that will still exist.  Being coached by the person who will eventually evaluate your performance might not always lead to a trusting relationship. It is also important to have coaches that possess the practical experience aligned with the areas where a leader can benefit from job-embedded coaching.

In any case, coaching can lead to improvements in teaching, learning, and leadership.  These results are not isolated to just achievement data, but also to the many qualities and characteristics mentioned earlier in this post that cannot (and should not) be measured with a number. If the goal is to support our teachers better then commitments must be made to ramp up assistance to all school leaders, including central office. Investing time and resources in people, regardless of position, is the key to transforming school culture in a way that leads to better results. 




A great deal of my work as of late with districts, schools, and organizations has been in the role of job-embedded coach. If you are interested in learning more about what this looks like shoot me an email (esheninger@gmail.com).

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Student Agency is More Than Voice and Choice

Educators and schools across the globe have embraced the concept of student agency.  It is a relatively simple concept in theory, but much more difficult to implement in practice.  The underlying premise is to move learners from a state of engagement to empowerment so that they exert more ownership over their learning.  For many schools, this flies in the face of a traditional schooling mindset that was more geared to learners having to buy-in to a one-size-fits-all system where success was determined by how well everyone did under the same conditions more or less. Oh, wait…. this is still the case in many schools. I digress. A culture that embraces student agency promotes risk-taking while working to remove the fear of failure helps students develop a growth mindset, and has students applying what they have learned in real-world contexts as opposed to just in the classroom.

Student agency is all about improving the learning experience for kids. The most common strategy that is embraced in schools is empowering learners through voice and choice.  This could come in the form of kids selecting the right tool for the right task to demonstrate conceptual mastery or choosing where to sit in a classroom with flexible seating.  It might be facilitated by posing questions and then having students respond under cover of anonymity using mobile devices.  Or maybe it is combining both elements of voice and choice through pedagogically sound blended learning activities. Learning in and out of the classroom should always be at the forefront when it comes to agency. However, we must not lose sight of the third element that comprises this concept, and that is advocacy.


Image credit: https://addictionandrecoverynews.wordpress.com/

While voice and choice are more aligned with ownership of learning in the classroom, advocacy aligns with improving the school or district culture.  Learners should be in a position to advocate for ideas, strategies, resources, and other elements that will help them succeed. This is not a new concept in any sense.  Adam Fletcher writes:
Student advocacy has a long history going back to at least the 1930s when a youth-led group called the American Youth Congress presented a list of grievances to the US Congress including public education. Through the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s to the free expression movement of the 1960s to the resurgence in student voice in the 2000s, student education advocacy is alive in the US today. 
Meaningful student involvement engages students as education advocates to work within the education system and throughout the community to change schools. Many students participate in committees, on unique panels, and in functions that help raise awareness or interest in education issues.
How would you rate the level of learner advocacy in your school or district?  This was one of my main focus areas as a principal.  Every month I convened all elected members of student government and engaged them in a conversation as to how they wanted to improve their school. The discussion was relatively broad, focusing on anything related to academic, social, and emotional ideas for growth and improvement. My only request was that each idea or suggestion was accompanied with practical strategies for implementation. After each meeting, I emailed detailed minutes and provided regular updates on where some of their well-articulated suggestions stood. The best part for these students was when my admin team and I implemented some of their excellent ideas.  There is no point in student advocacy if no action results.  Schools with vibrant learning cultures recognize this fact.  Below are some other ideas to think about when it comes to empowering student advocacy, the majority of which were implemented in my former school.

  • When hiring new teachers and administrators include students on the panel for the first round of interviews.
  • If you make a move to Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) or 1:1 elicit input from students when crafting policies and expectations.
  • To start the school year, allow students to co-create classroom rules.
  • When looking to improve divisive topics such as grading and homework allow students to weigh in and offer suggestions.
  • Empower students to use social media and the school newspaper or magazine to engage in respectful dialogue about how to improve culture.
  • As you either create or refine your makerspace, gather student input on what themes, tools, and technology they would like to have
  • Ensure there is a student representative to the local Board of Education (BOE) and Parent Teacher Organization (PTO)

Student agency can be a powerful force in education.  It can increase the degree of autonomy and self-determination amongst our learners while also engaging them in activities which aim to influence decisions in a school or district. How are or will you integrate more opportunities for advocacy to create a learning culture that prioritizes all elements of student agency?

Below is my video reflection on this topic.



Sunday, August 5, 2018

TTWWADI - A Culture Killer

In some cases, change has been hard to implement at scale or at all for that matter.  Sometimes we are blinded by perceived success as is the case for many high performing school districts that have high test scores. A question that typically will materialize is why to change if we are already doing so well.  Success is often in the eye of the beholder based on established criteria. This reason alone is why careful thought and attention have to be made as to how schools and educators are evaluated.  Not looking at other areas for improvement or growth for this reason alone has placed many schools and districts into perpetually sustaining the status quo. It goes without saying that this does not serve our learners or employees well as the new world of work requires much more than a high test score. 

Many other contributing factors inhibit the pursuit of meaningful change such as time, finances, mandates, and directives. However, there is another significant impediment to change that doesn’t get as much focus as it should and that is tradition.  What this then morphs into is a mentality of ”if it’s not broken why fix it”? However, the underlying reason for not changing can be chalked up to TTWWADI – That’s the way we’ve always done it. Tradition, combined with the comfort of the status quo, forms a plausible excuse for not changing. As a result, the learning culture does not evolve or becomes stagnant for both learners and educators. TTWWADI is also a characteristic of a fixed mindset.  



Now let’s take a look at a few specific elements that impact the learning culture of a school where TTWWADI might inhibit growth and progress:

  • Grading
  • Homework
  • Observation and evaluation
  • Teaching to the test
  • Professional development
  • Hiring practices 
  • Budget preparation
  • Purchasing decisions
  • Internet filtering 
  • Banning or restricting device use
  • Prioritizing athletics
  • Classroom and learning space design


The above list is not exhaustive by any means, but it does provide many opportunities for reflection on whether or not these traditional aspects of education are still persuasive and have remained unchanged.  If we continue to do what we have always done in education, then the chances are we will continue to get what we have always gotten. We can ill afford to accept this outcome as changes to the current and future world of work inherent in the 4th Industrial Revolution demand different and better. My point is that the focus should be on taking a critical lens to traditional practices and determine if the way in which they are being implemented is actually in the best interests of a vibrant and prosperous learning culture.  

Changes are being made in schools across the world. However, it is vital that we don’t become immune to the fact that a TTWWADI mindset might be entrenched elsewhere in a school, district, or organization beyond our line of sight.  As a principal, I dealt with this very issue in the form of the Director of IT. I am not going to mince my words here.  The individual in this position was nasty to kids and teachers alike.  He was also combative with building administration and got away with it as he was empowered for all the wrong reasons by the superintendent at the time.  When it came to Internet filtering, he lived by TTWWADI. Over time my colleagues and I worked with the new superintendent to bring about change to his fixed mindset. He eventually left for another district, and we were fortunate to hire a new person for the position who embodied a growth mindset in this area. 

The bottom line is that concerted efforts should always be made to improve existing structures and practices that impact culture. Just because it worked in the past does not mean it is an effective practice in its current form today.  All educators now have access to a vast amount of research that can lead to practical changes to the items listed above.  There is also a plethora of practical strategies that have led to evidence of improved outcomes available on the Internet and in recently published books.  TTWWADI is not always in the best interests of the learners we serve or of the educators that need support to grow and innovate with purpose. To create a thriving culture, some hard battles against tradition need to be fought. 

Where might TTWWADI be an impediment to change in your school, district, or organization? What action steps are needed to overcome it? Below are some more of my thoughts:


Sunday, July 29, 2018

Great Leaders Surround Themselves With Smart People

Leadership is a team sport.  It is not about what one person does, but instead the cumulative actions of everyone in an organization. Sure, a leader has to make some pretty important decisions at times that might require bypassing consensus or collaboration, but those are few and far between when you look at the big picture.  Success requires broad embracement of ideas where people are motivated to change because they want to, not necessarily because they are forced to. It’s both a two-way street and a give and takes relationship.  Effective leaders rely on the expertise of others regardless of where they are in the organizational hierarchy. 

The best leaders surround themselves with intrinsically motivated individuals who will not only perform at a high level with little oversight but will also push the leader to reflect and grow continually.  One of the most important decisions a leader can make is either through hiring new employees or placing current staff in a position to lead change even if he or she doesn’t have a specific title.  Steve Jobs famously said, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” Don’t ever think you have the best ideas or answers because you don’t. If you work with someone who thinks he or she does, then that person is not a leader.  Leadership means we must be willing to check our pride at the door if leading change and success are the ultimate goals.



Always try to hire or surround yourself with people that are smarter than you. This should be the most natural part of a two-step process.  The next step requires giving up some control and trust.  It is this next step where great leaders get out of the way of people who have been empowered for their respective expertise. When I think back to my time as a principal, I tried hard to embody this.  When a math position opened many years ago, I hired Kanchan Chellani.  She didn’t tell me what to do per se, but little did she know that her actions did.  Her ability to effectively implement and model flipped learning in a pedagogically-sound way sent the message to me as a leader that I needed to work better to support the rest of the math department in this area. 

Another great example was the hiring of Laura Fleming.  I desperately needed an innovative leader in the library who could transform the space in a quick amount of time.  She hit the ground running and had full control over her budget and the autonomy to make any decision related to the space that would benefit our learners.  Successfully launching a makerspace was what she is known for, but her real impact was how she empowered learners regardless of labels and perceived abilities to find success in ways that they never had.  Laura not only transformed the space but her actions and resolve helped to transform the entire learning culture of the school and ultimately the district. Her creation of a micro-credential platform came well before any companies began to monetize them and pushed our teachers to learn in different ways regardless of time or place.

Being told what to do can come in many forms. Laura and Kanchan represented just two of the many teachers that I hired as a principal who indirectly told me what I should do through their actions.  There were also may other teacher leaders, as well as members of my admin team, who were not only wicked smart but also leveraged the professional relationship they had with me to guide me in a better direction at times. Depending on others for guidance and wisdom is not a sign of weakness. On the contrary, it a definitive sign of strength. Effective leadership relies on making smart decisions. Make it easy on yourself. Hire or surround yourself with smart people, get out of their way, and don’t be afraid to let them “tell” you what to do. You need these people in your circle if you want to succeed as a leader. 



When it comes to leadership and people:
  1. Hire or surround yourself with smart people.
  2. Listen to them
  3. Get out of their way
  4. Leverage their expertise
Enough said.

Below are some more of my thoughts.