Degree vs. Passion

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Yesterday I sat on a hiring committee for a high quality preschool that was looking for a new lead teacher. There were 3 applicants. Two of them had an Associate’s degree in early childhood education with three years classroom experience. The third candidate had a Bachelor’s degree in early childhood education with 6 years of direct classroom experience and 8 years experience as a manager of our local Head Start Program. On paper, the third candidate was the most qualified and should have had the best chance at landing the job, and yet she didn’t. In fact, she was our third choice. Why? Here are my observations.

The interview process consisted of 13 interview questions, followed by 2 scenario type questions. They were given a scenario that involved a child with challenging behavior in the classroom, and a scenario involving a parent who has come to them with concerns about an assistant teacher. The interviewees were given the scenarios and asked how they would respond. Following the scenario questions, the candidates were asked to present a lesson that is appropriate for the age group they were applying for. There were no specific guidelines to follow for the presentation, as we wanted to see what each person would bring to the table. Each candidate also met with the Vice President of the college (it was a lab preschool for the community college), who gave feedback to the committee.

The interview portion brought about some interesting differences in candidates. The first teacher, who had just finished her Associate’s degree in May had some troubles answering questions about the various agencies that assess the program (NAEYC, QRIS, and TACSEI). However, she showed great passion for the field of early childhood education and had great responses to questions regarding leadership. You could feel her enthusiasm and passion for educating children. She was honest about her areas of weaknesses and showed how she has been actively working on them for the last 3 years. Her presentation blew everyone away! She brought her own flannel board and presented a story that was engaging, well prepared, and hit on many different cognitive areas. She included a complete lesson plan (a copy for each committee member) and showed the activities and transitions she would have incorporated throughout the day. She also brought a binder that included a complete literacy unit that included lesson plans, activities, and transition activities for an entire week). It was obvious to everyone on the panel that she wanted the position and worked very hard on being prepared for the interview.

The second candidate, who also had her Associate’s degree was very nervous and unfortunately couldn’t answer many of the interview questions. However, she showed passion for the field and was very personable. She showed ingenuity in her presentation skills. She also chose to present a flannel story for the presentation portion of the interview. She did not have her own flannel board so she made one herself at home using felt, wood, and styrofoam. She did a great job presenting her flannel story to the committee and I was impressed that she made all of the flannel pieces herself along with the flannel board.

The third candidate, who had the most education and the most experience, did well with the interview questions. She answered all of them to satisfaction and her experience and education were obvious in her answers. However, she seemed to lack passion and enthusiasm. It just felt flat. The presentation is what really broke it for her. She also brought a flannel story but did not bring a flannel board so she wasn’t able to present it properly. She had about twelve gallon size Ziplock bags full of materials and supplies that she dumped all over the table. When presenting the story she would have to dig through the pile to find the piece she was looking for which caused the story to feel very stilted and not engaging. To say the least, it was a disappointing presentation and it felt like it was put together at the very last minute.

After the interviews and their meetings with the Vice President, we all agreed on the first candidate. For me, as the future coach of this new teacher, my preference is to work with someone who is passionate about the field, is eager to learn, and open to feedback and new ideas. As a person who has spent half of their adult life in pursuit of higher education, I very much value education and experience. This interview process was a great reminder for me to look beyond the degrees and look for traits that aren’t as visible on a resume, such as passion, positivity, leadership, teamwork, and enthusiasm.

What characteristics do you most value in a teacher? I would love to hear your thoughts!

Procrastination

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As I sit here in the OB waiting room waiting for my third grandchild to be born (my only daughter’s first baby) I can’t help but think about the importance of being prepared. She isn’t due for another nineteen days but baby Mia has other plans. I feel so blessed that I have been at the birth of all of my grandchildren so far, and they have all been born healthy and happy! However, as with my last two grandchildren I have procrastinated on finishing up this week’s homework assignments for my EMBA degree, and so I find myself once again with my laptop in the waiting room frantically trying to get all of my assignments completed. Sigh. Some of us learn the hard way, and some of us never learn at all! I am determined to not let this happen again and so I have begun researching ways to stop procrastinating! I know that I am not the only one with this issue so I would love to share what I have learned so far.

The New York Times reported that procrastination has nothing to do with laziness (that’s reassuring!) but it is a form of self-harm (not so reassuring!). In fact, procrastination is an irrational act. It is a conscious decision to NOT do something even against your better judgement. I always attributed procrastination to poor time management and/or sheer laziness. I only struggle with procrastination in my private life. In my professional life I am on top of things, I never (well almost never) put off tasks and am usually ahead in the game, and have a hard time sympathizing with co-workers and/or bosses who procrastinate at work.

This has not served me well in the recent past. My current boss is a big procrastinator. Even worse, she waits so long to even start a project that she is incapable of finishing it herself and so many of them get delegated at the last minute to me. I had a conversation with her at the close of this school year and expressed my frustrations and concerns with her procrastination and what effect it has on me and the rest of the team. She was very much taken aback and her feelings were hurt. I couldn’t understand her inability to see how her inaction was negatively affecting the team, and I couldn’t understand why her feelings would be hurt.

The NY Times article stated that “Procrastination is an emotion regulation problem, not a time management problem”. People avoid tasks that bring forth a negative emotion (boredom, insecurity, frustration, etc.). Looking at procrastination from this perspective will (hopefully) allow me to be more empathetic. That isn’t to say that I will accept blatant procrastination that affects my ability to do my job, but it will allow me to try and help her to work through the negative emotion associated with the task so that she can begin to reduce her procrastination tendencies.

Wish me luck!

Working with Reluctant Teachers

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Build the Relationship

I know it has been said before, but one cannot argue the power of building a collaborative relationship with your teachers. I wouldn’t recommend presenting yourself as “the expert”, but rather as a resource and a partner. Teachers may be reluctant for a number of different reasons. Maybe they have had a negative experience with a mentor or coach in the past. It is important to take the time to find out where the reluctance is coming from and work through it with them. Notice I didn’t say solve whatever issues they are having or have had in the past. Playing “fix-it” will only exacerbate the reluctance. Take the time to get to know them both professionally and personally. It is not necessary to be “friends” outside of work, but it is necessary that the teacher knows that you care about them on a personal level. Do not be afraid to ask about their spouse, children, or what they like to do for fun. Taking an interest in them outside of their professional skills will go a long way in building a relationship.

Keep their Confidence

As a coach, it is not your job to report back to the Director or Principal on your teachers progress through the coaching progress. In fact, if you are reporting your findings to anyone other than the teacher, you are violating their privacy and undermining the process. One of the reasons I have found that teachers for be reluctant to the coaching process is when they have been struggling with effective teaching and have been put on notice by their director or principal. This creates a high-stakes environment for the teacher. They may fear that if they don’t improve with your coaching, they will lose their jobs. This is a tough situation for all involved. One practice that I make sure that everyone (including the director) is clear on, is that coaching sessions are confidential. I even go as far as having a coaching contract that the teacher and director sign that states what my responsibilities are, what the teacher’s responsibilities are, and that all conversations will be held in the strictest confidence. If this practice is not welcomed by the director or principal I first attempt to explain the reasoning behind the process. If the director or principal still do not agree then I simply refuse that particular coaching job. That isn’t to say that a contract will automatically gain you trust. It is a process that does not happen overnight. You MUST put in the time. Trust is earned, not given.

Student Focused

Teachers are more likely to open themselves up to honest reflection and real change when they can see the value it brings to their students. When talking through a difficult situation it helps to keep the focus on what is best for their students. Teachers can be reluctant to the coaching process when they feel it is going to create more work for them. One thing that teachers do not have an abundance of is time. Asking them to create something like a visual schedule for their classroom can seem overwhelming and unnecessary to a reluctant teacher. However, when the teacher can see the value it will bring to the classroom through reflective conversation rather than as a suggestion from you, they will be more likely to implement it into their daily plans.

Data Driven

Last, I would like to suggest to you that the coaching process by driven by data. Data is collected through observations, conversations, watching classroom videos, and observational assessments. Data takes the subjective nature out of the process, an important point when working with a reluctant teacher. The ability to say “I heard you give 5 positive descriptive feedback today” sounds much more credible and kind than to say “You didn’t give a lot of positive descriptive feedback today.” Using data rather than opinion will give a reluctant teacher something more tangible to hold on to and will go a long way in building your credibility.

Coaching Approaches for Teacher Stages

As a coach, you may find yourself coaching a group of teachers who are all in different stages of teaching development. It is important to approach each teacher as an individual and specific to the stage they are in. In the book “Coaching with ECERS” by Holly Seplocha, an explanation of the 4 commonly accepted stages to teacher development: survival; consolidation; renewal; and maturity. I will outline each below along with some helpful coaching tips based on each individual stage.

Survival

Teachers in the survival stage are generally new to the profession and have 0 to 2 years experience. They do not have many goals outside of getting through the day without someone getting hurt or lost. Their primary concerns are classroom management and discipline. They oftentimes have many students who are exhibiting challenging behaviors. Because they are in a flight or fight mode, strategies are often dismissed because they “won’t work with these specific children”. Teachers in this stage typically revert to a teacher-directed style of teaching. This style of teaching is inappropriate for preschool aged children and will only compound the challenges.

To coach teachers in the survival stage, efforts need to be very focused and specific. Choose areas for improvement that will make the biggest impact on reducing safety hazards, reducing chaos, and room arrangements should be a priority. Teachers in this stage may need to be given materials and resources, and well as modeling rather than a lengthy explanation about the benefits to children. It is important to give them multiple suggestions and options in regards to their concerns.

Consolidation

Teachers in the consolidation stage are generally in their 2nd – 4th year of teaching. They have passed the survival stage and have gained a little bit of confidence in their teaching skills. They have found strategies that work and strategies that do not work and are able to focus on the needs of individual children and instruction. Teachers in this stage have a better handle on completing lesson plans and general classroom management. They may still struggle with individual children who pose challenges to their general classroom management techniques. These students might be an English language learner, a child with a disability, a child who is particularly disruptive, or a child who does not seem to be progressing at the same rate as their peers.

Coaching teachers in the consolidation phase includes discussions about what works and why, providing resources to address specific concerns, directing them to professional development resources, and connecting them with other teachers in this stage to encourage networking.

Renewal

Teachers in the renewal stage are generally in their fourth year of teaching. Teachers in this stage are usually confident in their teaching practices and are interested in new ideas, strategies, and perfecting current practices. They are looking for new and exciting ways to improve their teaching strategies and are often self-motivated. Teachers in this stage ask many questions of their coach as well as other teachers in an effort to collaborate and gain new insights.

Coaching teachers in the renewal stage includes providing them with opportunities for growth. This can mean connecting them to Master teachers, directing them to professional development opportunities, and/or connecting them with outside agencies in order to build a broader understanding of the field of early childhood education. Teachers in this stage benefit from receiving opportunities to share with other teachers. More specific feedback and guidance on individual ECERS indicators is appropriate for teachers in this stage.

Maturity

Teachers in the maturity stage have generally been teaching more than 5 years. They are still interested in purpose, research, philosophy, and reflection, but may have become complacent or picked up some bad habits along the way. Teachers in this stage are sometimes reluctant to try new ideas and strategies based on the philosophy that what they have done in the past has worked (regardless of appropriateness).

Coaching teachers in this stage is most effective when conversations are centered around the benefits to the students. They will also want to know why specific changes are needed or required. Teachers in this stage benefit from sharing their expertise with others. Creating opportunities for these teachers to mentor other teachers and assistants is an effective coaching strategy for the maturity stage.

I hope you found this article helpful. Comment with your experiences with teachers or with any questions you might have.

Positive Descriptive Feedback

The term “Positive Descriptive Feedback” is gaining traction in early childhood education. On the Teaching Pyramid Observation Tool (TPOT), it is a required component in nearly every indicator. But what does it mean? It means to add words that describe the behavior you are acknowledging. For a child who walks (instead of runs) to line up for outside play, instead of saying “Good job!”, you would say “Thank you for using your walking feet when you lined up!” This technique puts to the focus on the behavior instead of the child.

Why is that important? Specific feedback allows a child to connect their behavior This technique is specifically helpful when addressing challenging behavior. Students who struggle with following the rules need specific feedback to make those connections. Telling a student who struggles with sitting at circle time “Good job!” while sitting quietly at carpet does not help the child understand what behavior you are praising. Is the “good job” for sitting, not talking, listening, keeping their hands to themselves, having both shoes on their feet, or for a picture they drew earlier in the day? Instead, try saying “Johnny, I see you sitting on your spot with your hands in your lap! Thank you for following our circle time rules!” This is even more effective if you point to a visual of the rules while you are talking.

Students who struggle with behavior often carry a lot of guilt and shame. This is another example of why it is important to link feedback to behavior. One of my favorite authors, Brene Brown, has written many books on shame and guilt. She describes the difference as: “I did something bad” is guilt, while “I am bad” as shame. Guilt, though it has a bad rap, can be a useful tool when dealing with challenging behavior, while shame has no positive value and is detrimental to a child’s development.

Examples of Positive Descriptive Feedback

When looking at the TPOT, there are specific times that assessors are looking for positive descriptive feedback. I am going to use this tool to give examples of appropriate feedback.

  1. Transitions between activities – “You cleaned up snack all by yourself!”
  2. Engaging in Supportive Conversations with Students – “Wow! You guys were sharing toys and playing together so nicely! The town you built with blocks is so interesting!”
  3. Promoting Children’s Engagement – “You are working so hard on that picture!”
  4. Providing Directions – “You and your friends helped each other clean up the blocks!”
  5. Teaching Behavior Expectations – “When you helped pick up the toys, you were being a team player!”
  6. Teaching Social Skills and Emotional Competencies – “Sally, Madison looks so happy because you helped her clean up her snack!”
  7. Teaching Friendship Skills – “Wow! Look at you! You are all being a good friend and taking turns with the train!”
  8. Teaching Problem Solving – (presented to the group rather than an individual child “Today, when Johnny wanted a turn at the art easel, I saw him ask Sally if she was done. Sally said she wasn’t done, so he asked her to come get him when she is done, that was a great solution!” (this works even better if you ask Johnny to explain the solution he tried to the group)

I hope you found these examples helpful. Comment below with any helpful tips you want to share about positive descriptive feedback or with any questions you have.

Coaching Challenges

I recently worked with a preschool that was very highly regarded in their community. It was a lab school for the local community college, they had achieved national accreditation through NAEYC, and was a three time 5-Star Quality rated center. The teachers never seemed to leave but Directors only stayed for an average of 2 years. I was excited to work with the teachers and the Director, who was on her 3rd year at the center. The center had received coaching services the previous 4 years from an internal party who had since left. When I walked into the center for the first time it quickly became evident that things weren’t all that they seemed. There was a tension in the air, the Director seemed nervous and stressed, the teachers were less than welcoming, and there were many challenging behaviors in the classrooms.

I realized that my presence may not necessarily be wanted by many in the center. I sat with the Director to get a sense of how she perceived the climate to be. She expressed that the staff had recently completed an anonymous evaluation on her and she got some negative feedback. She stated that “everyone hates her, she apparently is a terrible leader, and she is just waiting for the long-term teachers to leave because they have terrible attitudes.” Uh oh. This wasn’t going to be an easy process and I knew that I would need more information. I started by interviewing the lead teachers. They confirmed that they had some fundamental concerns with their leader, the Director, and that they had just the week before, taken those concerns to her supervisor. However, her supervisor, who was also a Vice President of the College, had recently been involved in a physical altercation with a colleague on campus and was soon resigning her position. (You can’t make this stuff up!) The teachers were frustrated and felt that the Director would not be held accountable. The problems were vast and serious. I struggled about how to move forward.

I decided to start at the top, with the Director. I led her through a reflective conversation to address some of the issues the teachers had identified in her evaluation. The Director really struggled with taking accountability. Though she admitted that most of the concerns were true, she felt that they were mean spirited and not her fault. She struggled with time management and because she consistently left tasks to the last minute, she was unable to ask clarifying questions or for help, and so often made mistakes that caused loss of funding and training opportunities for staff. Instead of being able to recognize that her time management skills needed to be addressed, she blamed the mistakes on a lack of training and/or that people would not answer her emails and so she couldn’t complete the task on time. After a few of these conversations, I realized that my coaching efforts would look very different than at previous centers.

My expertise is in classroom environments and effective teaching practices, not in team building in a toxic environment, but I was going to need to help work them through it if I wanted to get to the point where I could coach effectively. The first thing I did was to read Fierce Conversations by Susan Craig Scott M.D. This book taught me so much about team building, leadership, and how to have the difficult conversation with the Director that needed to happen in order for everyone to move forward. One of the great take-aways I learned from her book is that if someone is not a good fit, or they are unwilling or unable to get on board with building a positive work culture, you may need to help them “become available to industry”.

In this case, the Director decided to leave the center at the end of the process and teachers who had one foot out the door decided to stay. Once that change in leadership happened, things quickly improved in terms of a positive work environment. A few of the most valuable lessons I learned through this process were:

  1. Buy-in is essential – both at the top and all the way down. If the leader does not believe the coaching process will be beneficial, neither will the staff. A quick survey about how each staff member feels about having a coach is beneficial.
  2. Relationships are important – as a coach you must first put the time in to build a relationship with your coachee. Through conversations, I had built a relationship with the Director where trust was established. This allowed her to hear difficult things without feeling like they were a personal attack. These conversations also allowed her to realize that she was not in the position she wanted to be in and gave her the confidence to go after another position.
  3. Research is your friend – When faced with a question or problem that you don’t have the answer to it is important that you do the necessary research. The term “fake it ‘til you make it” does not apply here! Teachers and Directors are looking to you to help them solve problems, you need to take that responsibility seriously. It is not helpful to guess or make something up just because you want to be seen as the “expert”. You are not an expert in all things. It is ok to say, “I am not sure, let me research that and get back with you.”
  4. Coaching is not one-size-fits-all – Coaching is a cyclical process, but the starting point will look different for each situation. It would not have been a successful process if I had not first addressed the leadership and negative climate issues at the previous center. I would typically work toward building a relationship with the teacher I will be working with as a first step. In this case, that was not possible as there were more pressing issues to deal with first. You have to be flexible and you need to be willing to leave your comfort zone.

I hope you found this post helpful. Please comment or share your coaching stories below.

Creating Action Plans

You have met your teacher/coachee, built a positive relationship with him/her, conducted an initial observation, and engaged them in reflective conversation. What’s next? Goal setting and action planning! Ideally, goals should be based off of feedback from a formal observation and assessment tool such as the TPOT, ECERS-3, or the CLASS. However, a formal assessment is not essential when first getting started. In my center, I complete a baseline assessment in October, 2 months after school has started. This gives the teacher enough time to build relationships with her students, create a routine, and time to identify any potential challenges. However, goals are set early, usually in September.

Goal Setting

As with any goal, it is important that they be meaningful to the teacher/coachee. I am always surprised during coaching sessions how many people do not know what SMART goals are. Let’s do a quick review of SMART goals.

Specific – your goal should be well defined.

Measurable – Be clear on how you will measure progress.

Achievable – Make sure goals are realistic.

Relevant – Is the goal relevant to what you want to achieve?

Time-based – Ensure you have a specific time-frame.

Suppose you have noticed your students do not choose to go into the Math center during free-play. Initial assessments of your students show that half of your students are below average in Math scores. You want to improve your Math center to increase engagement and in turn, increase Math scores. What would a SMART goal be for this?

“Increase 10 out of 20 students’ Math assessment scores by at least 25% by the end of the semester.”

Action Plans

Action planning is an important step in the coaching process. Action plans give teachers the tools necessary to achieve their goal, helps them to stay focused on their goal, and creates an accountability system to keep them on track.

Action plans should include the specific goal they are working on (more than one goal can be worked on at a time), the steps needed to achieve the goal, the resources they will need, the timeline, and the manner in which they will know the goal has been achieved.

Here is an example of an action plan worksheet I use often:

An example of an action step for this example would be: add 5 Math manipulatives to the Math center. Materials or Resources needed: Counting and sorting bears, unifex cubes, pattern blocks, counting cans, numeral puzzles. Timeline: by the end of the week. Goal is met when: 10 out of 20 students Math scores increase by 25%.

I hope this post has been helpful to you. Please comment with any questions.